The Jesus Sutras: Joining Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism with Judeo-Christianity

By Alan Mann

For those such as myself who look towards God as the foundation of all that exists, and our own kinship to all other life forms, the Jesus Sutras by Martin Palmer provides interesting contemplation. The text below has been provided by Alan Mann

These Sutras bring together the beliefs of Confucianism,  Eastern Buddhism and Daoism and  join them with the beliefs of the Judeo-Christian world.

At the end of the 19th century a Daoist priest broke into a  sealed chamber cut into a rock face at Dunhuang, formerly a large town on the silk road during the Tang dynasty (618 to 906).  When the bricks and  rubble were cleared away he discovered paintings ,  scrolls and artefacts from the 5th to 11th century AD.  Most of the works were Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist texts but some were Christian and are collectively known as the Jesus Sutras.

We frequently hear of contemporary attempts to reconcile the insights of East and West but it came as a great surprise to me to read of a successful synthesis that occurred 1400 years ago. This revelation came to me by way of Martin Palmer’s book The Jesus Sutras which Louise Joy mentioned to me and subsequently reviewed the book in the last issue, No 162.

The author, Martin Palmer, became interested in this subject when reading the history of the early Jesuit missionaries to China in the 16th century, generally believed to be the first serious Christian contact.  He came across accounts of a 1625 discovery by workmen digging a grave.  It was a huge stone slab weighing over two tons and carrying extensive inscriptions in Syriac the language of the Eastern Christian church. The texts included the names of clergy and  the history of the establishment of a Daoist-Christian community at Da-Quin following the arrival of monks from the West in 635.

“The Way does not have a common name and the sacred does not have a common form. Proclaim the teachings everywhere for the salvation of the people. Aluoben, the man of great virtue from the Da Qin Empire, came from a far land and arrived at the capital to present the teachings and images of his religion. His message is mysterious and wonderful beyond our understanding. The teachings tell us about the origin of things and how they were created and nourished. The message is lucid and clear; the teachings will benefit all; and they shall be practiced throughout the land” (3:8-13)

Aluoben is believed to have been a Persian bishop and  Da-Quin is translated as ‘West’ or from the West.

The teachings of this previously unknown mission  of the early church to China came to light on examination of the Jesus sutras recovered from the Dunhuang cave, some of which refer to the Da-Quin community and some written by Jingjing (Luminous Purity) a priest at the monastery.  This early mission was welcomed by the ruling Tang emperor and was not only accepted but given a  degree of preference over other religions.  There were several reasons but one of them seems to have been an openness to other paths that was missing from the Western church of the day and perhaps today.

The story of how the author and a team of Chinese and international experts rediscovered the original monastery is a fascinating tale.  Their journey ended when they discovered that the crumbling Pagoda Xia Ju Xian was a relic of Da Quin monastery at Lou Guan . It was at this site that the stone stele was uncovered in 1625. When he told the locals they would be surprised to find that their pagoda had been part of a Christian monastery he found they were  very surprised he hadn’t thought to ask them first because they already knew, it was part of the local lore, handed down for over a thousand years.

The stone stele is on now display at a museum in Xian, an irritating piece of information as far as I am concerned as we visited Xian in 2010 and were not told about it.

The book provides interesting comparisons between familiar phrases and quotations from the New Testament and the versions which are recognizable translations in the Jesus sutras. There are many examples in which the sutra version reveals an understanding of Christ which, in my opinion, is a more adult version than the one I was asked to digest as a child at Sunday school and subsequently in my early adulthood as I tried to find relevance in Christian doctrine. For example the saying of Christ “I  am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but through Me”  which is mistakenly taken by most Christian denominations to mean that unless you are a believing Christian you have no hope of making it to the Father. This leading to exclusiveness , and a sense of being of the chosen.  On the other hand the Daoist would have absolutely no difficulty with this as the word Daoism means ‘the way’ or direction and the notion that it could be exclusive to a particular group would seem absurd. The ‘way’ would be regarded as a synonym for Christ or perhaps more likely the Holy Spirit which is described in the sutras as the Cool Breeze.

The book includes translations of the surviving sutras from which I selected a few examples:

The stories of Mary are matched with the Chinese mother goddess Guanyin who is purported to be the Chinese version of the male Indian deity Avalokitesvara and the author suggests the gender shift might have been under the influence of the Christians and the need for a female at the centre of things, as the Chinese were a bit short of females in their line-up of divine beings.

…So God caused the Cool Breeze to come upon a chosen young woman called Mo Yan, who had no husband, and she became pregnant. The whole world saw this, and understood what God had wrought. The power of God is such that it can create a bodily spirit and lead to the clear, pure path of compassion. Mo Yan gave birth to a boy and called him Ye Su, who is Messiah.

The theology of the Daoist Christians saw Christ a human albeit a very special human in that he provides access to God.  Yet in some cases he is referred to as ‘The Visitor’. The community espoused non-violence and and vegetarianism, women were regarded as equal and they did not own slaves. This provides an interesting and favourable comparison with other religious communities of the day and distinguishes them from the majority of Buddist sects of that era.

Two Extracts From The 2nd Sutra

The soul has Five Skandas. These are form, perception, consciousness, action, and knowledge. Everyone can see, hear, and speak. Without eyes you cannot see, without hands you cannot act, without feet you cannot walk. Just as one and two are united, so is everything mutually dependent. The sun and fire are two united as one. Fire emerges from the sun. They share one nature, but though the sun there is no fire. They are of the same whole yet are different for the sun never dies whilst the fire needs wood to keep burning.’ It has no inherent light of its own. Fire is not self generating. Yet the sun is; it is different from fire. The power the One Sacred Spirit is like this. Different but the same. The same but different. Thus the Sacred Spirit is different from human exstence. (2nd Sutra Chapter 3)

Therefore do not ask whether all that is is also partaker of this wu wei, this beginningless beginning, this absence of sense, timeless in time. The One Sacred Spirit simply is, existing in wu we!, being in beinglessness and beyond touch. Existing in nonexistence never extinguished into nonbeing. All that exists does so as the manifestation of thebeingness of the One Sacred Spirit. The One Sacred Spirit exists and moves in perpetuity. The One Sacred Spirit is uncreated and is the essence of all existence and can never be emptied.

All under Heaven can see this though some claim not to just as some can discern the heavenly soul. Some have this understanding, others do not. Those who understand can see the two aspects, the two seeds of being: the heavenly soul and the sacred Spirit. The human being and the Spirit come from one root. The Spirit and heavenly soul create the true human being. No body, no human being; no heavenly soul, no human being; no Sacred Spirit. no human being. Nothing to be seen under Heaven exists of itself. This is the meaning of two aspects, one root. The visible world is one aspect, the invisible One Sacred Spirit is the other aspect. There is no existence without the nonexisting, unending Spirit. All that lives does so by the One Sacred Spirit. Untold numbers. And all go back to the Four Elements…. . (Sutra 3 Chapter 3) There are many references in the Sutras that are clearly recognizable variations of New Testament stories and sayings.

Speaking of the later  sutras which were also discovered at Duanang the author comments: Instead of doing what many missionaries have tried to do-namely, make people adapt to the Western mind set of original sin and the classic death-resurrection model-these teachings take seriously the spiritual concerns of China and offer Jesus and his teachings as a solution to these issues.  These Sutras entered directly into the challenge of the Chinese world view, bringing salvation to the people rather than trying to reconfigure their entire world view. Many contemporary Christians who read these Sutras will find them too radical. Yet in them the Church of the East achieved one of the most remarkable retellings of the significance of Jesus, one faithful to the Gospel message of redemption and liberation from our failures and weaknesses (karma) and a message of hope—hope that the inevitability of rebirth could be broken and each believer freed to live in eternal bliss in the presence of God. P.75

He goes on to speculate that Daoist Christianity might have been the path of Western Christianity if we had adopted the view that human nature is essentially good rather than followed a doctrine of original sin as the driving force; if the West had followed Pelagius rather than Augustine.

There are some delightful, joyful expressions of devotion in these Sutras which reminded me very much of Traherne.  Speaking of the Sabbath they say  For example: ‘Every seven days we have an audience with heaven’. I find it very difficult to answer the question of whether or not I am a Christian. I used to fall back on Blake’s reply to the question ‘ no I am not sir, I am a worshipper (or was it follower?) of Christ’. However, I am a bit doubtful about that as a reply in my own case as I don’t think I follow sufficiently closely. Now, thanks to my reading of the Jesus Sutras, I discover that I am and have been for many years a sort of Daoist Christian.

In addition to the texts of the translated Sutras the book provides a comprehensive analysis of the philosophical and religious influences prevailing in China at the time of the early missionaries.  The extent to which Eastern Christianity penetrated was far greater than I had realized and the fact that it had to accommodate its message in countries with older existing traditions, as in China, made it more open, responsive and inclusive than the monolithic, hierarchical Christianity we experience in the West.

The book includes some useful maps and colour plates including this shot of the Moon Gate at Lou Guan Tai temple.  The inscription above the gate reads ”Look out from here and you will see clearly”. Legend has it that this is where the watchman saw the sage Lao Zi travelling west, stopped him, and asked him to write down his wisdom. This work became the Dao Te Ching.

I read the gate inscription as  a Daoist headless experiment disguised as a simple question. When the head monk asks me to “look out from here” do I look through the moon gate, or at the moon gate itself or am I sufficiently alert to actually carry out his request  and ‘look out from here’.  The Christian version is found in Matthew 22 “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light”.

Some of the web reviews of the book describe it as controversial and there is inevitably a degree of speculation involved because of the distance in time and the limited material. However, I don’t think we can dispute the essentials as outlined on the stone stele nor what the author and his companions discovered at Da-Quin.