The Stone Sutra

Palmer ends his book with a translation of the Stone Sutra that inspired his search for Da Qin and a brief history of the Christian Church in China, both of which proved quite interesting.

I was especially impressed by the opening lines of the Stone Sutra where the author restates Genesis and accounts for Man’s fall from Grace:

He beat up the primordial winds and the two vapors were created. He differentiated the gray emptiness and opened up the sky and the earth. He set the sun and moon on their course and day and night came into being. He crafted the myriad things and created the first people. He gave to them the original nature of goodness and appointed them as the guardians of all creation. Their minds were empty; they were content; and their hearts were simple and innocent. Originally they had no desire, but under the influence of Satan, they abandoned their pure and simple goodness for the glitter and the gold. Falling into the trap of death and lies, they became embroiled in the three hundred and sixty-five forms of sin. In doing so, they have woven the web of retribution and have hound themselves inside it. Some believe in the material origin of things; some have sunk into chaotic ways; some think that they can receive blessings simply by reciting prayers; and some have abandoned kindness for treachery. Despite their intelligence and their passionate pleas, they have got nowhere. Forced into the ever-turning wheel of fire, they are burned and obliterated. Having lost their way for eons, they can no longer return.

Without looking at other translations of the Stone Sutra it’s impossible to know exactly what it says, but I love the phrase “appointed them as the guardians of all creation” rather than the more common translation of granting man dominion over the earth. Of course, I love it because that’s what I’ve always felt was man’s role.

I tend to agree that man’s fall from grace probably came as a result of abandoning “their pure and simple goodness for the glitter and the gold” rather than from eating of the tree of knowledge, but, again, that might be just my prejudice since I’ve spent most of my life eating from that tree, hoping it would provide answers to some of life’s most intriguing questions. I’d have been rather foolish to spend most of my life as a teacher if I hadn’t held these values.

Although the last chapter of the book seems anticlimactic, it did provide historical details that were surprising, if not actually shocking. Am I the only person that didn’t have a clue that “when Genghis Khan unified the Mongol tribes and burst out of Mongolia to conquer much of the world, a goodly proportion of his army was Christian?”

Perhaps even more shocking is that I actually found myself agreeing with a jacket blurb, where Thich Nhat Hanh is quoted, “The Jesus Sutras tells a valuable history of the beautiful teachings of a faith built on living practices of brotherhood and peace. The Sutras show us the interbeing nature of Jesus, Buddha, Tao, peoples, cultures, transformation, salvation, and unity through deep and mindful living.”

The Sutra of Returning to Your Original Nature

I am certainly no religious expert, and I’m not sure whether Palmer is right when he argues that:

Jingjing should be recognized as a Dharma King: a saint. One of the most outstanding Christians ever produced by China, he is also, to the best of our limited knowledge, the greatest product of the Tang Dynasty Church in China. He wrote works that are masterpieces of world spirituality in his ability to interpret to a Chinese world the significance of Jesus’ human incarnation. He deserves to be recovered from obscurity and recognized by contemporary spiritual seekers with the same admiration and affection that his own Church clearly had for him.

Nor do I know nearly enough about Christian writing in China to know whether Palmer is using hyperbole when he argues that in The Sutra of Returning to Your Original Nature:

… we have the fullest expression of the Dharma Law of God, the Tao of Jesus, a magnificent fusion of the best of all the worlds in which the Chinese Christians of the age found themselves.

But I do know that there are some extremely powerful and eloquent lines in this sermon, certainly the best sermon I’ve ever heard, as evidenced by lines like:

This is why I say: no wanting, no doing, no piousness, no truth.
These are the Four Essential Laws.
They cannot teach you in themselves
But follow them and you will be free
From trying to sort out what to believe.
Feel compassion, and be compassionate over and again
Without trying to show it off to anyone.
Everyone will be freed this way-
And this is called the Way to Peace and Happiness.

I would, however, agree with Palmer that:

These Sutras deserve to be better known. They are classics of the most radical fusion of Western and Eastern spirituality as well as classics of Tang Dynasty poetry. I hope that by bringing them to life again through translation they can join the corpus of great works of spirituality. After a thousand years of silence, they sing out again.

I wish the Sutras were longer so that I could feel comfortable quoting longer passages and giving you a better feel for their power, but Palmer has done a masterful job of introducing them and putting them into a historical context.

Original Nature, Not Original Sin

Most of the Jesus Sutras I’ve read so far in Palmer’s book certainly haven’t been as interesting as The Gospel of Thomas was. In fact, the early versions Palmer discusses first seem little more than poor translations of Western versions. Though it is interesting to see how hard it is to translate ideas ingrained into the Westerner psyche into terms that Chinese of that period could relate to. In turn, this allows the reader to see more clearly the differences between the two religions while simultaneously being able to see the importance of certain concepts in both religions, as when the phrase “Cool Breeze” is substituted for “The Holy Spirit.”

It wasn’t until I encountered this passage, however, that Palmer really caught my attention:


One core concept that shapes all the liturgical Sutras is that of original nature. This is radically at variance with traditional Christian thought, which has tended to emphasize the defects of humanity: the fault of Original Sin. In China, the tables are dramatically turned. The Church of the East broke away from the West just in time to avoid the magnificence and the curse of St. Augustine of Hippo, who took the basic notion of original sin and built it into the destructive force it was to become. In looking at the theology of the Church of the East, we can see what Christianity without St. Augustine might have been like.

St. Augustine saw humanity as almost irredeemably wicked and perverse, rejecting any idea of some innate goodness. To him, salvation is an entirely undeserved act of grace that plucks us from our filthy state of evil. Augustine was opposed in his time by the first British theologian on record, a monk named Pelagius, who argued the opposite, that human nature was basically good but had been corrupted and misguided by human weakness. The theology of Augustine triumphed in the West, but it was a theology similar to Pelagius’s that triumphed in China.

The term “original nature” or “innate nature,” occurs in both Taoist and Buddhist thought. It signifies that all life is innately good but becomes corrupt or loses its way through the compromises of life and existence. A wonderful example of what this means is given in the writings of Zhuang Zi, the Taoist philosopher and wit of the fourth century p.c.: “Horses have hooves so that their feet can grip on frost and snow, and hair so that they can withstand the wind and cold. They eat grass and drink water, they buck and gal- lop, for this is the innate nature of horses. Even if they had great towers and magnificent halls, they would not be interested in them. However, when Po Lo [renowned as the first and greatest trainer of horses] came on the scene, he said, ‘I know how to train horses: He branded them, cut their hair and their hooves, put halters on their heads, bridled them, hobbled them and shut them up in stables. Out of ten horses, at least two or three die …. The people have a true nature, they weave their cloth, they farm to produce food. This is their basic virtue.” Zhuang shows how people have been corrupted by those who wished to control them, just as the poor horses were destroyed and damaged by the actions of Po Lo.

This idea of original nature could not be further from the concept of original sin. So the later Sutras adapted to the Chinese view that human nature was essentially good but could be distorted. In these Christian Sutras from China is the shape or outline of a post-Augustinian theology that the West itself needs in order to become free from the burden of original sin and thus reconfigure or rediscover Christianity. Given that original sin was unknown as a central theme of Christian thought before the early fifth century, it is possible to agree with Pelagius that true Christianity holds a notion of original goodness. In a post-Augustian Christian world, this rediscovery, embodied in the actual books and thoughts of a major ancient Church, may well be a version of christianity that can speak to spiritual seekers today.

All these liturgical Sutras celebrate freedom from karma, reincarnation, and the power of death, and the possibility of spiritual freedom from these forces on earth as well as in heaven. As Jesus said when asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was to come, “The coming of the Kingdom of God does not admit of observation and there will be no one to say ‘Look here! Look there!’ For you must know, the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 18:20-21). These Sutras celebrate the inherent reality of that spiritual liberation.

First of all, I didn’t realize that this debate had ever taken place in the Catholic Church, though I was aware that it raged during the Enlightenment. Philosophically, I’ve been so opposed to the concept of original sin that I’ve found it difficult to take seriously any religion that advocated the idea. I had a hard time just plain not laughing out loud every time I had students’ read Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The very idea of God hating his “children” struck me as absurd. Nor could I ever accept the concept that a child who had not been baptized could be denied entry into Heaven because his sinful nature had not been redeemed. Of course, that’s probably because I was raised by a Christian Scientist, though one who had left the church because he could no longer accept the idea that it was wrong to see a doctor.

I could never decide whether I believed in the inherent goodness of mankind or in “tabula rasa,” but I could easily learn to accept “ the Chinese view that human nature was essentially good but could be distorted.”

I’m looking forward to seeing what effect this assumption has on Taoist Christianity.

Even More Background

Although I’m still impatient to get to the actual Jesus Sutras, I found Palmer’s three middle chapters, “Panorama of the Early Christian World,” “The Church of the East,” and “The Multicultural World of Seventh-Century China” much more interesting than I would ever have expected, perhaps because they made me more aware of my vast ignorance in these areas.

Of the three areas, I did know the most about the “Early Christian World” because of college courses in European history, a long interest in The Dead Sea Scrolls, and a particular interest the The Gospel of Thomas (see my recent discussion of Elaine Pagel’s Beyond Belief ). Still, I found Palmer’s discussion of the early debates between various schools quite interesting, and the writer in me appreciated this metaphorical description of the early churches:

Beginning in the fourth century, Church historians and teachers presented a view of the early Church as a single ship plowing its way steadily through the tempestuous seas of the pagan world, buffeted by the winds and storms of heresy but nevertheless always finding the true path. Perhaps a better analogy would be to see the early Church as a series of small boats, setting off from different Places, using different designs, but all under the sail of the personality and teachings of Jesus. Gradually, those boats that were out- manned or outmaneuvered faltered and disappeared. Yet a small armada of boats survived and decided to sail together rather than separately.

Somehow I find the early searching of the early Church for Truth far more appealing than the certainty that many seem to feel in their church’s teachings.

I knew nothing about the Christian Church of the East, and judging from Palmer’s comments I’m not alone in this:

The extent, size, and diversity of the Church of the East is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of Western Christian history, which has traditionally dismissed the Church of the East as Nestorian and therefore heretical. At its peak in the eighth century, this once mighty Church far outstripped the Church of the West in the size, scale, and range of cultures within which it operated. Unlike many of the missions of the Church of the West to the Germanic tribes and the Anglo-Saxons in England, for example, the Church of the East was dealing with ancient, highly literate, civilized cultures and peoples. It had to find its way in a world where theological writings, philosophical debate, and schools of education had been in existence for hundreds, even thousands of years. It was a remarkably different world from the world of the West, and it produced remarkably different churches and forms of Christianity. Perhaps one of its greatest achievements was the Taoist Christian culture and the writings of the Jesus Sutras.

I was nothing short of shocked to learn that there was an influential Tibetan Christian community,with a bishopric in Lhasa.

Although my recent interest in Chinese thought made me aware that Shamanism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism have a long history in China, Palmers short discussion of their basic ideas and relationship to each other gave me a clearer understanding of their relationship, though I was surprised to read that Buddhism is considered a “foreign” religion, since I’ve always thought of it as China’s main religion, at least before the rise of Mao’s form of Communism.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, I found Palmer’s discussion of Taoism most interesting, and particularly enjoyed this summary of Taoism:

Taoism as a religion rather than a philosophy or way of life emerges in the second century A.D. Founded by a series of remarkable mystics, it offered to ordinary people an alternative to the hierarchy and order of Confucianism, while also offering discourse and contact with the supernatural. In many ways, it is a codified version of Shamanism that became a whole way of life. It offers an understanding of the world, the Tao, and humanity’s place within it that is a very different vision from that of the Confucians. It is perhaps best summed up in the core creed of Taoism, captured in chapter 42 of the Tao Te Ching:

The Tao gives birth to the One, the Origin.
The One, the Origin, gives birth to the Two.
The Two give birth to the Three.
The Three give birth to every living thing.
All things are held in yin and carry yang:
And they are held together in the qi of teeming energy.

The Tao is before the origin of all. In this sense it is almost like the idea of God in Christian thought, except that the Tao has no personality, no emotions, no divinity. It simply is the ultimate principle of all and origin of the origin. The origin gives birth to the two cosmic forces-again, not deities, just forces: yin and yang. Yin is the female: the dark, damp, winter force of life; yang is male: the hot, dry, summer force. Together these two forces are locked in perpetual combat seeking to overcome each other. But this is impossible, for each carries the seed of the other within it. Autumn and winter are yin; just when it seems winter will never end, spring inexorably begins. Spring and summer are yang; when it seems the heat of summer will never abate, the cool winds of autumn begin.

The Three are Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. Heaven is yang, Earth is yin, and humanity combines both in the pivotal position of the balancer and arbitrator between yin and yang. Human error, pride, and foolishness disturb this balance. But at our best, humanity, through the rituals of Taoism, can ensure that yin and yang remain balanced and the world spins on.

Qi is the life breath that every living thing has and is an active expression of Tao. Life begins when qi enters the body; it is never added to but is steadily used up over the course of one’s life. Death comes when the store of qi has been fully exhausted. The quest for health, healing, and even immortality in certain schools Taoism consists of trying to hold on to qi and never use it up.

No wonder I’ve found Taoism so appealing since this description pretty well coincides with my own philosophical views.