Encounters Between Tibet, China, and the Nestorian Missionaries: Elements of Evidence in the Sutra of Jesus Christ
by Kayla Jenkins
In this paper, I will be analyzing the Sutra of Jesus Christ, one of the manuscripts found in the Dunhuang caves, believed to have been written around 645-650 CE. The scrolls and manuscripts found at the Dunhuang caves were part of a collection of texts that were sealed within the cave
around 1005 CE. The cave and its contents were rediscovered around the end of the nineteenth century, and the documents were spread throughout Europe and Asia via explorers, traders, and thieves. The discovery of these scrolls have led to a greater understanding of the dedication of the Nestorian missionaries in their efforts to convert the Chinese people to Christianity. The Sutra of Jesus Christ is one of the four “Jesus Sutras” researched and translated by Martin Palmer and his colleagues. This particular sutra echoes the message of Christianity while incorporating Buddhist,
Daoist, and Chinese philosophical ideas as well as cultural references from Tibet and China. This sutra intertwines various topics regarding who God is, how one should live, and elements of Jesus’ life. The goal of this paper will be to analyze the particularly Buddhist, Tibetan and Bön elements. The most important messages that the Nestorian missionaries wanted to keep in the readers’ cultural context, were the ideas of a vague, omniscient
ultimate power, the theory of karma, and general ethics for living one’s life. It is important to note that the Tibetan empire was not under great Buddhist influence until the eighth century—nearly a century after these texts were compiled. One of the ultimate questions raised through the research of this paper is whether this work influenced or was a part of the growing collection of literature that introduced and assisted in the development of Buddhism in Tibetan regions.
Review of Literature
Existing literature on the topic of the Jesus Sutras is scarce. Martin Palmer’s translation and commentary on the scrolls, The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity, is the primary source used in this paper. Palmer incorporates scholarly research and his
personal travels to sites connected to Nestorian Christianity in China in his work. Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore, the authors of The Lost Sutras of Jesus: Unlocking the Ancient Wisdom of the Xian Monks, take the passages from various sutras found in the Dunhuang caves and weave them together into
a devotional work for a lay Christian audience. These two books are the only sources exclusively dealing with the Nestorian Christian sutras found in the Dunhuang caves, dating back to the seventh century. The Nestorian Documents and Relics in China by P. Y. Saeki is likely the earliest printed
source that includes a translation of the sutra and an additional commentary. However, the translation is more difficult to read and understand, so Palmer’s translation is used as the main source for the literature. This paper will contribute to the conversation between scholars such as Palmer and Saeki, but will approach the text particularly looking at Tibetan Bön themes and Buddhist ideas. Emphasis on the contact between Tibetans and the author of this sutra has not been addressed in detail by the aforementioned scholars. I hope to bring new light to the relationship between Tibet and China before the advent of a strong Buddhist influence, through looking at the Sutra of Jesus Christ, which proves that the relationship existed in multifaceted forms.
In this paper, I use the historical-critical method in analyzing the primary source, and looking at the historical context of the world where and when the text was written. I will be looking at a translated text, and addressing the context, purpose, and message of the text, in order to glean information about the author and the author’s audience. Due to the text’s age and lack of research done on the topic, some questions can only be answered with assumptions. I will be analyzing the primary text, translated by Martin Palmer and his colleagues. Then I have included discussions on specific terms, ideas, and philosophies mentioned in the source, using secondary sources and critical analysis. Identifying “Tibet”
The idea of a physical space or people called “Tibet” is a complex topic to define or describe. Between the seventh and tenth centuries CE, the Tibetan Empire was powerful, flourishing, and influential, and its physical space included lands that are now located in modern day Mongolia and China. Tibet’s geographical and political power fluctuated throughout the following centuries, and since the mid 1900’s, Tibet’s borders and ways of culturally identifying have dramatically changed due to China’s involvement. Today, Tibet is referred to politically as the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Scholars have referred to an ethnic Tibet and geographical Tibet. Geographical Tibet exists as a space in Central Asia that has fluctuated throughout history due to political changes. Ethnic Tibet exists in this geographical region and beyond it—today in diaspora throughout India, China,
Europe, and the United States. The source to be used in this paper existed in a world where both ethnic and geographical Tibet were somewhat indistinguishable, and at the same time nonexistent due to the lack of scholarship existing on “Tibet” in the seventh century.
Throughout history, Tibetan and Chinese regions have worked together in mutual influence, creating a history of exchange in regards to all aspects of life and culture. In the early seventh century, Chinese traditions of medicine and divination were introduced to Tibet, and Tibet supposedly had an embassy at the Chinese court in 608. Therefore, before and around the time of the production of the Dunhuang scrolls, China and Tibet were sharing
medical, political, and religious information and presumably religious philosophy and ideas. Princess Wencheng, a Chinese princess, married the Tibetan king, Songsten Gampo, in 641. She brought with her images of the Buddha with her to Tibet; this was the first major and public introduction of Buddhism into the land. This marriage created an alliance between the Chinese Tang dynasty and the Tibetan empire, which Matthew Kapstein suggests “effectively reduced hostility between the two powers for some years.”
Nestorian missionaries from the West were in direct contact with China, and there is evidence that many Nestorians lived among the Chinese and were close to the influential members in society. Scholars have found that “direct or indirect Christian influence on pre-Tsang China remains a matter of conjecture,” but there are “traces of Manichaean and Zoroastrian activities in the China of that period.” Therefore, the evidence of these contacts
would allow one to assume that “a Christian presence in China in the 6th century cannot be completely ruled out.” T’ang China had influence over much of Eurasia, including Tibet and Mongolia. During the 7th century, the T’ang Empire was “probably the largest and wealthiest of its time.” The emperor T’ai-tsung, who ruled from 626-649 “received the first Christian mentioned in the official records.” A royal decree of T’ai-tsung in 638 is the first Chinese document to mention a Christian, and it happens to be Alopen , the supposed author or co-author of the Sutra of Jesus Christ:
The Way [[[Tao]]] has no immutable name, sages have no unchanging method. Teaching is founded to suit the land that all the living may be saved. The Persian monk A-lo-pen bringing scriptures and teaching from far has come to offer them at Shang-ching. The meaning of the teaching has been carefully examined: it is mysterious, wonderful, calm; it fixes the essentials of life and perfection; it is the salvation of living beings, it is the wealth of man. It is right that it should spread through the empire. Therefore let the local officials build a monastery in the I-ning quarter with twenty-one regular monks.’
This text and similar documents show that Christianity, in various forms, was present in China during the time of the compilation of the Sutra of Jesus Christ. Alopen and his translators are believed to have been written in Chang-an around 645-650 CE. It is written in Chinese and exemplifies great knowledge of “Chinese religion and philosophy,” as well as “strong Jain or Hindu influences,” and ideas from the “Tibetan Church.” Some scholars, such as Gillman and Klimkeit suggest that this sutra “must have been the first work written by Alopen.” Alopen and his translators’ goal was to present doctrines of Nestorian Christianity, and to tell the “gospel story” of Jesus.
The Nestorian Christian missionaries who had contact with China could have also (and must have) had contact with Tibetans as well. This contact must have occurred along the Silk Road. In fact, the Dunhuang Caves sit along the Silk Road in the Gansu Province of Tibet. Encounters between the Nestorians and Tibetans would have been few and far between, even along this trading route, due to “obstacles posed by great distance and extremes of climate, in conjunction with a landscape broken by profound ravines and towering mountain ranges” which were all “factors inhibiting communication” between Tibetans themselves and outsiders.
The Nestorian missionaries’ presence in China and contact with Tibetans is evidence of a desire by these Christians to convert Chinese, Tibetan, and other East Asian communities to Christianity. Their efforts to found monasteries, translate texts, and teach the local people through learning their languages and cultural norms, was a form of immersive missionizing. The purpose of compiling texts, like the Sutra of Jesus Christ, was to make the Christian message more accessible and understandable for Chinese people. Palmer notes that the earliest sutras, including the Sutra of Jesus Christ,
“present the life of Jesus to people living in cultures where reincarnation and karma were daily issues.” Replacing the role of buddhas and bodhisattvas with Jesus Christ as the Messiah, and making references to ideas of heaven and hell, spoke to the largest concerns that people had regarding their existence and lives after death. Sections of these sutras “adapt the Old and New Testament worlds to those of the Buddha’s life and the Tao Te Ching,” in hopes of creating a path for their Chinese followers that was not harshly different from their current worldviews. As one will see in the exegesis of the Sutra of Jesus Christ, the author(s) of the text work diligently to intertwine important Christian ideas with Buddhist, Daoist, Tibetan, and Confucian philosophies in a way that hopefully led to successful acceptance in Chinese culture.
The influence of Buddhism, which at that time was considered a “recognized foreign religion with an enormous literary and artistic output” in China also played a role in the production of the scrolls. The forms of Buddhism that would have been present in China and the surrounding areas during this time was that of the Mahayana traditions, which vary in practice and doctrine from Theravada traditions found in Southeast Asia. A great amount
of cultural diversity and toleration of many ideas in the empire during this time leads one to believe that the Sutra of Jesus Christ was just one of many teachings being shared throughout the land that incorporated a vast array of religious themes. During the seventh century, Tibet was in the beginning stages of translating and receiving Buddhist texts from India and China, which would later become part of the Tibetan Buddhist identity in
the eighth century. It is important to note that in the same cave at Dunhuang where the Jesus Sutras were found, manuscripts documenting the origins of Buddhism in Tibet from the eighth and ninth centuries were found as well. These documents have been vital for those studying Tibetan language and culture. The presence of these documents in the same cave as the Nestorian missionaries’ writings show that communication was present between Tibetan and Nestorian scholars and translators. The variety of documents found in the cave point to religious and cultural connections between the Chinese,
Bön is the term scholars use to refer to the shamanistic and indigenous religious tradition that existed in Tibet before the advent of Buddhism. Bön practices were still deemed superior at the time of the compilation of the Sutra of Jesus Christ. The authors of these scrolls and other manuscripts were familiar with Bön ideas and philosophies, as will be discussed in this paper. Kapstein notes that “the term bön itself occurs on a number of
occasions in the old documents found at Dunhuang, though never, so far as is now known, as the proper name of a particular religion.” The references to “bön” in documents found alongside the scrolls including the sutra to be discussed in this paper are there to “designate a type of priest,” coming from the Chinese term “fan” which is used “for Indian priests and Buddhist monks.” In some manuscripts from Dunhuang, “bön” is used as a reference to the word for Tibet itself, which is pronounced “bö.” Therefore, any direct reference to a Tibetan idea or theme is not referring to an
exclusively Buddhist-Tibetan audience. The purpose of including distinctly Tibetan themes such as the “winds” of the body could have been done in hopes to persuade some of the Bön practitioners the Nestorian missionaries would have encountered or heard about during their travels. Buddhist ideas may have been included for the Chinese audience. However, it cannot be ignored that at this time, Buddhist ideas were beginning to spread throughout
Tibet. Though Buddhism’s popularity was not yet extensive, some themes or figures may have been circulating at the time of the sutra’s authorship. The sutras found in Dunhuang predate the eighth and ninth centuries, when Buddhist ethics became important to the Tibetan ideology. Kapstein notes that beginning in the eighth century, “the royal commitment to Buddhism had become explicit and clear.” Some scholars have argued that Christianity, possibly through missionaries like Alopen, influenced Mahayana Buddhism, which is the dominant form that entered Tibet and became influential in the
eighth century. However, “there is no definite proof of a Christian influence on developing Mahayana Buddhism,” particularly during the first century CE as it entered China. The forms of Buddhism that became popular in Tibet are indeed a mixture of Bön, Mongolian, Chinese, and Indian practices, insofar as they incorporated various texts from these regions and compiled a unique, expansive canon. In this sense, it cannot be claimed that one religious tradition directly influenced Tibetan Buddhism, and instead a plethora of ideas infiltrated the milieu of Tibetan beliefs and practices.
The Sutra of Jesus Christ is comprised of five chapters. Chapter one of the Sutra of Jesus Christ attempts to describe who God is in relation to the buddhas. Verses 1 and 2 read as follows: “At this time, the Messiah taught the laws of God, of Yahweh. He said: There are many different views as to
the real meaning of the Sutras, and on where God is, and what God is, and how God was revealed.” The next verse claims that “The Messiah was orbited by the Buddhas and arhats…he saw the suffering of all that is born, and so he began to teach.” The initial purpose of the author’s inclusion of this scene seems to be to describe the beginning of the Messiah’s ministry on earth. It is a time of chaos and confusion, due to the prevalence of many
ways to view God. The scene of the buddhas and arhats orbiting the Messiah places the Messiah above the most superior Buddhist beings. In Buddhist thought during the time of the supposed production of the sutra, choosing to be a buddha or arhat would have been the ideal spiritual path. Buddhas are enlightened beings who will be released from samsara after their current lifetime on earth. Arhats seek to “escape from cyclic existence but
[are] primarily concerned with personal liberation.” The text also presents the buddhas and arhats as working alongside the Messiah and equally concerned with and able to see the suffering of the world. The emphasis on suffering is a fundamental Buddhist concern. Duhkha (Sanskrit), or sDug bsNgal (Tibetan) is a fundamental Buddhist concept, which means “suffering” or “dissatisfaction”. This is the first of the Four Noble Truths, which
are the basis of the teachings of the enlightened Siddartha Gautama, which led to the formation of the tradition we now refer to as Buddhism. References to suffering as a fundamental aspect of existence in the constant cycle of death and rebirth (samsara) is also found in Hindu scriptures. Suffering is alleviated through the dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha. The alleviation of suffering equals a state of liberation or release from samsara. Samsara is the endless cycle of death and rebirth into an existence of suffering. The suffering of life does not only refer to pain or tragedy—it can mean a simple state of distress, frustration, and having desires that cannot be quenched. Suffering is propelled by desire and ignorance.
Verse 5 begins with the Messiah and his first teaching, which says, “Nobody has seen God. Nobody has the ability to see God. Truly, God is like the wind. Who can see the wind? God is not still but moves on the earth at all times.” It goes on to claim that God brings contentment and peace: “God
leads the believer to that place of contentment and great bliss.” “Great bliss” refers to a state of liberation—something equal to the common notion of nirvana or enlightenment. The emphasis on “great bliss” would have been popular in the Mahayana, Tantric, and Vajrayana forms of Buddhism that entered Tibet through China, Nepal and India. The usage of “Great Bliss” became part of Tantric rituals in Tibet, particularly rituals that used a
person’s subtle body to experience enlightenment. For the Buddhist audience in China, at the time of these sutras, “great bliss” would have most likely referred to simply a state of nonexistence, which was reached by Shakyamuni Buddha at the end of his life. Therefore, it is unclear as to whether the idea of “great bliss” would have been included in the sutra by the Nestorian missionaries as a way to speak to the Chinese Buddhists or the Tibetans who had recently encountered Buddhism from India and China.
The next verses continue to describe the Wind, now capitalized, referring to God’s presence or spirit as the wind: “All great teachers such as the Buddhas are moved by this Wind and there is nowhere in the world where this Wind does not reach and move.” This verse is informing the audience of this sutra that the buddhas are great teachers, but they are led and moved by God, not another force or impulse. The Buddhist understanding is that buddhas come into existence and teach the dharma out of a compassion for the world that they culminated through many lifetimes of meditative and disciplined practice.
Verse 16 claims that “God’s Palace is in this place of peace and happiness yet he knows the suffering and actions of the whole world.” The understanding may be that the palace of God is located in a celestial heaven, where God is seated as a deity in another realm, yet he is able to see and communicate with this earth. The idea that buddhas and deities are influencing humans on earth from their various celestial abodes is a prevalent one in the general cosmology of Mahayana Buddhism. Stephen Berkwitz notes that buddhas and bodhisattvas in these heavens “became conceived as powerful intercessors that could assist Buddhist practitioners in their worldly goals and rebirths.”
Verses 17-20 continue to describe the indescribability and transcendent nature of the Wind: “Everyone in the world knowns how the Wind blows. We can hear it but not see its shadow. Nobody knows what it really looks like, whether it is pleasing to look upon or not, nor whether it is yellow, white, or even blue. Nobody knows where the Wind dwells.” Verses 21-22 claim not only the omnipresence of God, but his existence outside of “death and
birth” (samsara), while also claiming that God is “beyond being called male or female.” The Bön tradition holds that “all of reality is pervaded by a transcendent principle, called ‘All-Good,’” and it has a male and female aspect. Verse 23 claims that God has creative power, and the following
two verses discuss Daoist ideas of manifesting God’s “spirit force” which brings power to the individual who manifests God’s spirit force. This practice grants “longevity” and leads to “immortality.” The ideas of longevity and immortality are strictly Daoist ideals, attained through alchemical processes and rituals, reserved for serious practitioners. Yet the reference to “God’s sacred spirit force” may be a utilizing Bön ideas
regarding the source of life and “fundamental principle of existence,” which is the “bön nature (bon nyid).” Powers notes that “all the elements of existence (bon) derive from it, and intuitive understanding of it leads to liberation.” The references to the spirit or force of God throughout this sutra may be incorporating this early Tibetan theory. The sutra consistently emphasizes the unknowable nature of God, which also is the source of life and creation. Bön literature is commonly “concerned with describing and categorizing the various forces that inhabit the earth and sky and with rituals designed to both propitiate them.”
First, the Buddha is said to “bestow grace, and with this grace comes also a deep, clear understanding that lifts us above folly. This way anybody can attain Heaven, even if he is not a scholar.” This verse seems to be saying that one can reach Heaven through the Buddha’s teachings, as long as
those teachings lead one to an understanding of God. It could also be emphasizing the accessibility of the Christian teachings in contrast to the difficult path in Buddhism that leads to enlightenment. This path may require one to participate in difficult study as a monk, scholar, or meditator. The average person in most Buddhist communities who lives as a lay person, does not have the hope of reaching their ultimate spiritual goal after
God can work through the Buddha and bring followers to himself who will then be able to enjoy fullness in Heaven. According to Berkwitz, heavens were “magnificent and pleasurable places” created by buddhas “out of compassion for living beings who suffer in samsara.” In Mahayana cosmology,
beings can be reborn into these heavens through accumulating merit, which is a difficult but attainable goal for all beings. This merit may take many lifetimes, depending on one’s actions. Contrasting with the Christian view of heaven as an eternal destination, Buddhists can dwell in heaven for a
few lifetimes, but rebirth in another, most likely lower realm, is inevitable. Chapter one not only introduces God and his superiority over Buddhist figures, but it incorporates cosmological imagery that would have been recognizable to Mahayana Buddhists, such as heavenly places. The Nestorian missionary simply begins their argument by suggesting that in order to get to such places, one must follow God instead of another path, which is discussed in detail in later chapters.
The most interesting aspect of chapter two is its discussion of the winds, which derive from Bön, or pre-Buddhist Tibetan ideas. The following verses discuss the Winds which give life and bring death to all beings: “when it is time for life to end, the Winds depart from the body…The Winds’
departure is a time of great distress, but nobody can see the Winds at that time.” The Bön understanding of life is that every person has invisible winds running through channels in the body, and these winds leave the body when the person dies. These ideas survived after Buddhism’s entrance into Tibet. Further describing the invisible life force, verses 7-11 claim that “Nobody can see them because they have no form, no color, not red or green
or any other. The Winds of Life are invisible. The path is unknown.” This once again borrows from the Tibetan understanding of the winds of the body, which are imagined as part of one’s subtle body to be of different colors, yet invisible to our eyes. There are different forms of wind described in Tibetan texts that point to the “vital breath” or “sog lung” as the most important—these winds bring life to one’s body. Other winds
control organs and specific functions of the body. Palmer notes that “at first this might seem to be a muddled version of the Chinese concept of qi, or energy, the Breath with which we are all born, the preservation of which ensures immortality,” but “Qi is essentially passive,” and is not a creative and powerful force within the body, as the Tibetan winds are. Palmer suggests that this section of the text must have been produced from a
“Tibetan Christian book drawing on Bon Tibetan cosmology and philosophy” which was then “incorporated into a Chinese Christian Sutra.” This is due to the idea that winds create and move throughout one’s body is an exclusively Bön idea that was later incorporated into Buddhist ideas in Tibet. Therefore, the reference to winds may have originated from the original “key book” that, according to Palmer, “forms the key basis for this whole Sutra.”
Verse 19 instructs the audience to “show wisdom,” which is found in those who are following the Way of Heaven. This echoes a common Buddhist concern with wisdom as a notable goal. Through specific practices, one can attain wisdom and subsequently teach others on the same path. Influential Buddhist texts such as the Visuddhimagga, written by Buddhaghosa, which instruct one to gain wisdom, which will bring about four benefits, including the “removal of various defilements,” and “the ability to attain nirvana.” Wisdom is therefore a fundamental characteristic of those following the Buddhist path correctly—without it, one cannot reach the ultimate goal. Wisdom is gained through “virtue along with mental concentration,” propelled by the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha.
Verses 24-27 intertwine the idea of karma and the story of Adam and Eve, the first human beings described in the Old Testament scriptures, while also bringing up the death of Jesus Christ, and ending with a call for the audience to do good:
All such evil stems from the first beings, and the disobedience in the fruitful garden. All that lives is affected by the karma of previous lives. God suffered terrible woes so that all should be freed from karma, for nobody is beyond the reach of this Buddha principle. Those who do good will be blessed and fortunate, but those who do evil will suffer.
The “first beings” are of course Adam and Eve, whose story is told in the book of Genesis. The author of the sutra then claims that their sins have affected all beings after them and ties this idea to karmic theory. Karma means “act” or “action,” and Buddhist philosophy holds that such actions
can affect “one’s future modes of existence.” The sutra claims that Jesus’ suffering on the cross was done so that all could be “freed from karma,” the actions that follow them throughout many lifetimes. Karma is referred to as a “Buddha principle” which is accurate, but is also found in Hinduism. Yet after claiming that God’s suffering can free someone from karma, the sutra instructs the audience to do good, which will bring them
blessings. In this way, the Nestorian Christian author is changing the way karma works—they are instead claiming that Jesus can erase one’s bad actions, and therefore affect their future existence for the better. One who follows Jesus in this new description of karma will not be burdened or trapped by their own actions, and instead can be liberated through God’s suffering, instead of their own. The Christian message in this case is
claiming that instead of being reborn into a lower realm and suffering as the karmic residue is released from one’s body, one can turn to God and allow his suffering to do this work instead. This section of the Sutra of Jesus Christ is attempting to work alongside the existing worldviews and
insert Jesus’ story into the solution to the problem of samsara. Chapter two carefully presents a theology of God that would be compatible with Bön ideas. The Nestorian author keeps the idea of karma as a useful tool to then include God’s suffering for humanity. This seems to show that the theory of actions and their results was embedded in the cultures they were working to convert, and therefore had to keep this element.
Chapter Three: The Right Way to Worship
Chapter three of the sutra emphasizes the error in making idols, the importance of worshipping God, and the respect one is to give the Emperor. Verses 1-2 describe the initial problem: “Foolish people make wooden statues of camels, cows, horses, and so on. They may make them seem very lifelike and worship them, but this does not really bring them to life.” Later verses continue to speak of these fools: “They really are confused!
They make gold, silver, or bronze statues of spirits, then venerate them…they cannot walk, they cannot speak, they cannot eat or drink.” The sutra is referring to the act of making images of revered deities, gurus, bodhisattvas, and animals that is common to varying degrees in Tibet, China, India, and other places where Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Daoism is practiced. In Tibet in particular, it is common to find shrines and
temples with bodhisattvas and Buddhas as the center of attention, in the form of large statues and artistic renderings. These places are sacred pilgrimage sites that followers would travel to in order to bring offerings, say prayers, and bring honor to the venerable being of the particular shrine.
Verses 14-22 emphasize the importance of the law of God. Verse 14 claims, “only somebody who truly worships God can teach the Sutras and expound the texts.” The responsibility of monks in Buddhism is precisely this—to study the teachings of the Buddha, write about certain topics, and inform the lay followers of the correct path. The sutra is claiming instead that only those who follow God can do this correctly—and the sutras in this case are
instead the teachings of God. The Nestorian Christian author is challenging his or her readers to study the Christian texts, instead of the teachings of the Buddha. Verse 17 says that “somebody who knows in their heart the right way to follow, but does not do good and encourages others not to do good, is unacceptable to God.” In fact, these people, who must be “trapped by luxuries and illusions” will “end up in the hands of King Yama, God of
Judgement and Rebirth.” Yama is a figure in Buddhism that was initially associated with being a “lord” of hells, as found in the Yogacarabhumisastra, written around the fifth to sixth century CE. In Mahayana Buddhism, there are multiple hells that people will be reborn into depending on the specifics of their negative actions. Hells in Buddhism are not final, however, and are instead a pit stop along a journey of many
rebirths into various realms, heavens, and hells. To be reborn into a hell is dependent upon a person’s karma, not a being of judgement. Yama’s association with judgement most likely originates in the tenth to eleventh centuries in East Asian Buddhism. Yama as a figure of judgement associated with hells is debated by scholars as possibly being a product of Zoroastrian scriptures and Greek sources that may have influenced
Buddhism. Sources from China’s philosophies about the afterlife and sources from the Jewish scriptures are also possibly influential. Akira Sadakata suggests, “we must not forget that all these ideas might have a common origin somewhere—for example, a picture from ancient Egypt that shows the heart of a dead person being measured is suggestive.” Therefore, the description of Yama as a god of judgement and rebirth in this sutra passage may
have been incorporated from other sources, or it may have been a replacement for Satan imagery, who is the being in Christianity associated with hell. Whether or not the mention of Yama as associated with judgement and hell in this sutra was an original idea that later influenced this characteristic of Yama in Tibetan Buddhism (or other forms) or not, it was part of the collection of sources that did come to describe the being of
Yama as associated with death, hells, and judgement. Chapter three as a whole addresses two important aspects of religious traditions: images and art, and the study of texts. The Nestorian author would have known that these elements were popular in Buddhism and other traditions, but instead gives an alternative collection of texts to study—the laws of God.
Chapter four of the Sutra of Jesus Christ summarizes some main ideas discussed thus far, and then lists ten “covenants” that mirror the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament scriptures. The first three are as follows:
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.
These covenants relate to the treatment of the elderly and one’s parents, which is a very important ethical matter in Tibet. Buddhist ethics in the eighth and ninth centuries encouraged the “sixteen pure human laws,” which included “honor to parents and elders.” Even before Buddhism entered
Tibet, respect of one’s elders was a cultural expectation. The fourth and fifth covenants are as follows: 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 only not take the life of another living being, but should also teach others to do likewise.
These covenants echo Buddhist concerns with compassion and the refrain from injuring or killing any other living thing. It is unclear whether in this sutra the covenant is referring to the killing or harm of other humans, or if it encompasses animals and other beings as well. The following covenants address adultery, stealing, covetousness, envy, and giving “to God only that which is yours to give.” The insertion of giving to God what is God’s is an addition of the Nestorian Christian author. However, the sutra then claims “there is much more than this,” and lists many more teachings regarding one’s actions, including how one should “forgive and forget,” and “give generously.” Verse 37 then says, “if someone is
seriously ill or handicapped do not mock, because this is the result of karma and not to be ridiculed.” Therefore, this verse is claiming that one’s physical or mental shortcomings are due to one’s own past actions. In Buddhist communities, it is understood that one’s inferiority or superiority in a physical sense is due to one’s negative karmic accumulation. One of the Five Aggregates (skandhas), which are the characteristics that compose all
beings, is “karmic dispositions (samskara),” which affect one’s quality of life. One’s karmic matter joins with material form, feeling, perceptions, and consciousness to make up one’s interdependently existing form. The Nestorian author in chapter four does not challenge any major ideas found in Buddhism, Chinese thought, or Daoism. The author describes general ethics that mirror, in style and rhetoric, the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments.
Palmer notes that scholars have not found a source for this reworking of the commandments, but whatever those origins may be, “it shaped the actual life of the Church in China by banning slaves and banning the taking of any life. It resulted in the only officially vegetarian branch of the Christian Church ever to have existed.”
Chapter Five: The Life of Jesus
Chapter five tells the story of the Messiah’s time on earth, which is a direct parallel of the life story of Jesus Christ. However, names are changed to reflect common types of names found in East Asian lands—presumably so that the readers can relate to or recognize the characters. The story begins with God causing “the Cool Breeze to come upon a chosen young woman called Mo Yan, who had no husband, and she became pregnant.” However, the whole
world saw this and “understood what God had wrought.” Verse 3 then says “the power of God is such that it can create a bodily spirit and lead to the clear, pure path of compassion.” This echoes a major doctrinal concern found in Buddhism—that of compassion as a purifying path to enlightenment.
Verse 8 claims, “When Ye Su the Messiah was born, the whole world saw a bright mystery in the Heavens. Everybody saw from their homes a star as big as a wagon wheel.” The use of a wagon wheel in the example is most likely simply borrowing from a common object found in the Middle Ages in Asia. Verses 14-19 echo the story of Jesus visiting John the Baptist in the wilderness. The sutra then describes the Messiah’s life, in which he “spoke the
words of the sacred spirit” while traveling, teaching, and healing people. This reference to the “sacred spirit” once again makes sense in a Bön context, utilizing the idea of the All-Good life force. Thus, the Nestorian Christian author, who was describing the ministry of Jesus, may have used “sacred spirit” as a nod to Bön ideas that would help Tibetans understand the movements and motivations of Jesus throughout his life. After
describing the opposition that the Messiah encountered among the ones who were “pretending to be the speakers of truth and purity,” verses 41-43 describe the Messiah’s death: “The Messiah gave up his body to the wicked ones for the sake of all living beings. Through this the whole world knows that all life is as precarious as a candle flame. In his compassion he gave up his life.” The symbolism of a candle flame may also be simply a
reference to common object to be found in one’s home at that time, but the flame of a candle has also been used in Buddhist texts to describe one’s consciousness or life. Yet the most blatantly Buddhist reference in this section is the emphasis on compassion for the world. It was out of compassion that Shakyamuni Buddha existed in this world, and it is out of compassion that all Buddhists learn to practice the virtues of Buddhism,
mirroring the example of the Buddha. Compassion becomes a large part of later Tibetan Buddhist practice, and the most revered bodhisattvas are known for their great levels of compassion for all beings. The Nestorian Christian author possibly used the word “compassion” in this case instead of “love,” which would have been the common Christian way of describing God’s attitude toward the world, as noted in the New Testament passage, John
3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” The final verses of this sutra describe the Messiah’s execution and strange occurrences during his time on the “wooden scaffold”: Early that morning there was a bright sunlight, but as the sun went West, darkness came over the world, the earth quaked, the mountains trembled, the tombs opened and the dead walked. Those who saw this believed that he was who he said he was. How can anyone not believe? Those who take these words to heart are true disciples of the Messiah. As a result…[here the text breaks off].
The Messiah’s resurrection, mentioned in the New Testament scriptures, was a part of the text that did not survive—but the fact that the sutra says “the dead walked” points to more than one person leaving their tomb and coming to life. Saeki notes that regrettably that the last few lines of the
sutra are lost forever, due to the carelessness of the Chinese: “they cut off the last few lines of the roll if that part happened to be soiled or very much spoiled by wear and tear in order to make the remaining part look nice and tidy.” The Nestorian missionaries presented a similar view of Jesus for the Chinese readers as is done in the New Testament scriptures, but they replace certain names and places with culturally recognizable names. The authors wanted to relate the characters to their readers.
In conclusion, the Nestorian Christian author, possibly Alopen (and his translators), had the goal of converting his readers to the Christian faith. In order to do so, the author rewrote Christian teachings and stories relating to God, ethics and law, and Jesus’ life in a way that incorporated Buddhist, Tibetan Bön, and Chinese ideas and imagery. This was done to make the Christian message more accessible and acceptable to the author’s
audience in Chang-an, China, and its surrounding communities. The Sutra of Jesus Christ emphasizes the importance of understanding who God is, how one is to live their life as a follower of God, and it tells the story of Jesus’ life and death. R. S. Sugirtharajah suggests that these sutras, even
in light of their contradictions and confusing ideas, “are in fact indispensable guides to post-canonical Christianity” and they “challenge the church’s traditional notion that theology reflects only biblical revelations.” This sutra and others like it contributed to the collaboration between Chinese and Nestorian scholars. However, history has proven that the Nestorian mission was not as successful as the force of Buddhism in China. Richard Folz notes that “Christianity didn’t catch on to anything near the extent Buddhism did,” as evidenced by the sheer number of Buddhist monks listed in the census, as compared to the lacking number of “‘Christians and Zoroastrians’” in 845 CE. Though the Chinese referred to the
Christians as part of the “Luminous Religion,” their light did not continue to shine, at least not brightly. The Sutra of Jesus Christ is a testament to the diligence and commitment to converting the Chinese that the dedicated Nestorian Christians had. Their efforts paint a picture of a world of collaboration, understanding, and compromise between religious traditions—something that is difficult to find today.