The Rise and Fall of
the Church of the East
in China



Origins of the Nestorian Church
Rediscovery (Martin Palmer)
The Church, the Tang Dynasty, and After
The Missionary Jesus Sutras
The Liturgical Sutras
The Stone Sutra


Part of the Silk Roads
Da Qin Pagoda (drawing)
Tang Dynasty China



The story of the mission of the Church of the East into China and its adaptation into an indigenous Church is one of attachment to a culture and its authorities. This experience is a demonstration how a faith identifies and partly changes an identified core message within another culture and adapts the apparent wider packaging for communicating. This story of the Christian Messiah in a Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian setting is told in full by Martin Palmer, as he interprets it, in The Jesus Sutras (2001), from which much of this material comes.
Another background to his work is the emergence of documents before 1900 from a cut cave in Dunhuang. It contained 50,000 items of manuscripts, paintings and printed documents on paper and silk dating from 400-1000 CE. It included the world's oldest printed book. Whilst most were Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian, some were different and of a Christian character (Palmer, 2001, 1). There were other Silk Road sites too. They have contained tens of thousands of documents, including almanacs on wooden strips from the 100s BCE, letters from Sogdian merchants in the 200s BCE, documents in an lost Indo-European Tocharian language; a Judeao-Persian document (again of interest here), and secular and religious material in over 15 languages and scripts. The material was dispersed to museums and private collections, but is being collected digitally and can be investigated online (Hampson, et al., 2003).

Silk Roads

Origins of the Nestorian Church

The myth that there was one single, Holy and Apostolic Church which thus had unique authority was never quite as true as its advocates pretend. Until 312 and the conversion of Constantine the Churches developed variable beliefs around the figure of Christ, some tending towards his humanity (Antioch, Syria) and some towards his divinity (Alexandria, Egypt). 325 saw the Council of Nicaea as one process of coming together (it was not the only creed around) which stressed that Jesus was truly God.
Nicaea was the last united world Church credal statement the Church of the East participated in and accepted (until some parts entered into renegotiations centuries later). It has been otherwise called Nestorian, which was the original movement before the later mission into China. The Church came about with arguments over vital details.
In 421 Nestorius, a priest-monk of Greek origins, of the Antioch side, but made patriarch of Constantinople (Turkey), objected to the new cult of Mary as the Mother of God. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, gained the acceptance of these Marian beliefs at the Council of Ephesus in 431 but with mobs fighting both he and Nestorius lost their positions.
The Alexandrian side in time produced the Coptic Church divorced from the Western which later added others and they were called the Monophysites. Just like Cyril, they believed that Christ had one nature, divine, and so could not accept the Chaleconian definition in 451 that Christ was both fully Man and fully God. For Nestorians, only the man Jesus was the son of the Virgin Mary and so she could not be called mother of God. Nestorius could accept "Mother of Christ". His stress was on Jesus' humanity rather than two persons: the Logos itself was in Jesus the man rather as if in a temple. After the Council of Ephesus Nestorius lost his patriarchal position, was exiled to Antioch and then Egypt. Even without him the Church developed as most followers had gone to Syria within four years and then went on to Persia, safer from Rome/ Byzantium. He always maintained his orthodox credentials. (Palmer, 2001, 93-96)
The Church of the East, dating from 431 CE, became increasingly cut off from Antioch being beyond Roman power, and with other differences it ploughed its own furrow. Its last remaining link was a theological college in the Roman border town of Edessa purged in 457 and closed by Emperor Zeno in 489 with its members exiled (Palmer, 2001, 100), partly to try to impress with Monophysites. In fact this separation intensified because the Sassanian Empire feared a Roman invasion of Persia, and from 310 to 450 the Zoroastrian faith and State began to persecute the once tolerated Christians as a foreign threat (or more because it lost people converting to Christianity) just as Constantine would have invaded ostensibly on the basis of protecting persecuted Christians (98). So it stayed unconnected from Rome, Constantinople or Antioch and developed its own forms. It was developed into autonomy by Mar ("Father" or "Holy") Barsauma in the 400s in Persia (183). Even in China it retained Syriac as a special religious language whilst it translated much into Chinese.
A crucial difference from the Western Church was that it avoided Augustine of Hippo's conclusion of original sin (Palmer, 2001, 176). It rather instead followed a view not unlike the original blessing of Matthew Fox, corrupted by weakness but always open to recovery. In China it adopted the Taoist and Buddhist understandings on goodness being affected by the wearing down of life. Therefore the emphasis was always going to be on teachings even if there is a supernatural basis of the appearance of the one who can provide this truth.
The Church had a confederal structure and the character of a minority missionary Church (Palmer, 2001, 101) and, culturally spread, stretched from the Sassanian Empire to India (Thomarist Church) and Tibet (with a Church community starting with the conversion of the White Huns from 549 (113), until the 1200s). This diverse Church had to use consensus and suffered great communication problems across warring territories and the rise of Islam. (Palmer, 2001, 85-104) The Church of India, said to have been founded by Thomas, was a long standing partner Church after it rejected the changes to the Western Church and the Monophysites (112), and this Church influenced the Jesus Sutras, as did Buddhism, the Greeks, Taoism and Jainism (via the Indian Church) so that the Da Qin Christians were vegetarians, promoted non-violence, charity, sexual equality, care for nature and were anti-slavery (113, 253).
Its difference then from the West was demonstrated in the conceptual adaptations made when the Church prepared for mission further afield. It was happy to use concepts derived from other well developed faiths and civilisations in transmitting its own. Whereas the official Western Church used pagan festivals and had a folk religion aspect to its practices, it never worked with other concepts in a sense of sharing with others. It ran largely through one empire. It controlled doctrine and liturgical practice. It absorbed into itself varieties which could no longer exist alone within its orbit. For example, even the British Celtic Church (co-existing alongside Roman customs after Augustine) was absorbed into Rome (remnants retreated to Iona and Ireland) at the Synod of Whitby in 664 CE. King Oswiu declared that if Peter had the key to heaven given to him then he was not to be contradicted when Columba (Celtic) (died 597, the year Augustine was sent to Kent) did not have this key, even if lineage was claimed to John. Plus, Paul was in Rome as well as Peter, who outvoted John. Heaven was a place of unified practice and so should be earth. (Van de Weyeer, 1997, 58-60; Pagan, 1988, 28-29)
So the Western Church wanted universal total control and power. The Church of the East, however, wanted to transmit a simpler message about Christ, the Messiah, and seemingly could do this in several ways respecting existing pathways to religious truths. Nevertheless it still existed under political authorities, being a source of stregth and weakness.
This must not be confused with Eastern Orthodoxy. This came out of the Western Church and Byzantium (the eastern inheritor of Roman Empire centred on Constantinople). It was from the historic division in 1054 and this Church maintains a strict unity of doctrine and practice even without a Pope. Only in the Reformation did diversity come back in within the West, and sometimes within communions, but still each Church attempts to control its ideological universe. The Church of the East was clearly seen as a threat to orthodoxy, Nestorian was a term of abuse and heresy, and many exiles and intellectuals were cast out to it over time giving it creative strength. This Church had its own saints and martyrs too.


Da Qin Pagoda

In his book Martin Palmer tells of his rediscovery in 1998 of a pagoda with a specifically Christian feng shui (arrangement) and his visit a year later (Palmer, 2001, 1-38). There was still a local folk memory of Christian monks who built a church and monastery there. The pagoda followed. This was the site of the lost Da-Qin Christian monastery (in the environs of a Taoist monastery) and the arrival to construction happened between the 600s and 800s CE. The Great Stone of the Church of the East, created in 781 CE, which includes Syriac script, described the Christian mission. It had been dug up in 1625 and was lodged in the Forest of Stele museum (Palmer, 2001, 23). When he returned after a year (26) the Chinese authorities had already begun restoration work and with some difficulty he and others were able to go inside (30). Up some scaffolding to get through a window there was inside a 10 feet high 5 feet wide huge statue. It was in the symbolic form of the five sacred mountains of Tibet but the figure was more like an Orthodox icon in posture than Chinese. This was a nativity scene, from about 800 CE (30-35). Another floor up showed again a Chinese setting (bell drum towers, then a tree in front) but the un-Chinese figure is Jonah (36-38). This fusion of forms and difference were evident in the Sutras too.

The Church, the Tang Dynasty, and After

Tang Dynasty China

Aluoben was the monk and likely bishop who led the mission of the Church of the East to Tang Dynasty China. He probably came from central Asia (Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan) in a Church and area fluid for ideas and religious interfacing.
The Tang Dynasty itself was a golden age for China. It started with the fall of the repressive to peasants Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE) when Sui soldiers deserted the regime and an officer called Li Shimin captured Chang-an (Xian today) and installed his father as the first Emperor. He killed his brothers as part of removing all opposition, and then removed his father. He became the second Tang Emperor Taizong. He then normalised and improved he country, bringing in a meritocratic Confucian based civil service open to scholarship and examination. It undermined the nobility and local warlords but its certainty and reliability encouraged trade and business (Palmer, 2001, 120). The armies did their work and soon this empire spread from the Caspian Sea to Vietnam and Korea (the extent of territory declined by the 750s) and securing the Silk Road also meant greater certainty and protection on that principle trade route. It was also the connecting route travelled by monks and nuns of the Church of the East. Thus Chang-an could grow and became cosmopolitan. There was plenty of foreign trade including with Persians and Arabs, many going into Chang-an. Chang-an became a grid pattern planned huge city of a million people. Peasants were no longer repressed although the regime tried to placate landlords (Carter, 1978, 90-91). There was spare land from Sui civil wars to give to peasants and forced labour was reduced while construction for water transport continued and agricultural improvements took place. There were good roads across country too. Ideas flourished with a double edged multi-cultural multi-religious feel.
It was into this context that the Church of the East arrived and expanded. Its scriptures, positive in a revelatory, salvic and practical message (compares with Buddhism and Taoism), and its subservience about proper authority (compares with Confucianism), were welcomed.
The missionaries went along the Silk Road from eastern Persia arriving in Xian, then called Chang-an, in 635 CE. They were expected and well received and the teachings on the "origins of things" were well regarded, as shown on the Stone Sutra. The Chinese gave the religion the new name of Religion of Light or Religion of Illumination, as interpreted by Palmer (2001, 42-43) with the longer title "Da Qin Luminous Religion" or Religion of Light from the West. The mission received offices to work in a foreigners' enclave where there were over 100 temples of many religions and there they translated the Sutras. They also built the first monastery there, and later in 650 built the one at Da Qin. Many others followed throughout China with the favour of the Emperor Taizong. (Palmer, 2001, 44-49) It can be seen that the Church upheld the Emperor's authority as well as introduced a moral order based on salvation from suffering, Jesus the Messiah who saves, Buddha nature and principles in teaching and escaping from suffering, and the impact of karma with reincarnation.
China was tolerant and syncretistic, and yet nationalistic in knowing the differerence between home grown and foreign imported religions. Taoism was developed because, as a home grown religion, it covered the fact that Taizong himself was more Turkic than Chinese (Palmer, 2001, 129). Buddhism had become an intellectual religion (130), whose importance for Christianity was that it provided a rationale for salvation in its later imported pietistic Mahayana form (131). The earliest Hinayana form was too tough for popularity, and that looking at reality and non-reality was a theoretical development which suffered after the persecution that came from the authorities aided by home religions in 845 CE (132-133).
All empires decline and in the end peasants nevertheless did revolt and the basis of the dynasty declined. (paragraphs above: Carter, 1978, 90-91, Palmer, 2001, 118-120, 128-133)
The Stone Sutra in particular tells of the support of a succession of emperors but when that was missing and indeed in the negative happened the Church of the East fell rapidly and had only an unsteady revival based on who ruled. (Palmer, 2001, 228-231, 244-250)
The short lived Zhou Dynasty, created when the wife of Emperor Gaozong (650-683 CE) took power in 695 and had exiled her husband's successor, invested huge support into Buddhism. She claimed to be the expected Future Buddha Maitreya. She did persecute the Christians (as on the Stone Sutra), but by boosting Buddhism she upset the home grown faiths and Confucian belief in order (for example, she was a woman in charge). By 705 she was out with the Tang Dynasty name back again and, with Confucianism and Taoism rising, Buddhism and other things foreign were to come under attack. (Palmer, 2001, 234-235)
By 751 Arab Muslims took over control in Central Asia and China lost its political confidence so that the Uighurs came in and took control. However, they were largely Christian (and Manichaean) as were Central Asian rulers. (233-234)
With the Chinese defeat by Arabs in 752 in Central Asia, the route from Persia for monks and nuns was difficult or impossible (238). Islam was the power of that region, and sapped its power in Persia to reduce it over time to little.
In China, Buddhism was increasingly attacked as foreign and this became full blown persecution. In 843 CE, 3500 Buddhist monks and nuns were defrocked, and two years after all metallic based statues were confiscated. Then all those in religious orders were forced out, all temples and shrines were destroyed and Buddhism's 150,000 slaves were removed. It was in this context that the 3000 Zoroastrian and Religion of Light monks and nuns were also forced to be defrocked in 845 CE. The Da Qin monastery was probably destroyed then (but not the Pagoda). Although Buddhism did return, the Church of the East monasteries seemed to be finished. (Palmer, 2001, 236) It seems that Christianity went underground in some places but perished rapidly in others so that at least by 1000 CE nothing seemed to be left. About this time a group of Buddhists, Manichaeans and Christians hid their treasures and scriptures in caves in the desert around Dunhuang necessitated by invasions by Tibetans. (Palmer, 2001, 233-250)
Then came the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 CE) which was a world leader in military technology but weaker in military power (Carter, 1978, 91). The Yuan Dynasty was the period of Mongol Power.
Mongol power attacked Islamic power with massacres and human 'cleansing' in the 1220s including Persia. It might have happened in China, turning it into horse grazing land. This did not happen and the wife of his son Tolui, Sorkaktani, was Christian and her third and youngest son became emperor of a retained China, Kublai Khan (1260-1294) (the other two ruled Mongolia and Persia). (Palmer, 2001, 246-247). Kublai Khan moved the capital city to Peking/ Beijing. Only the Persian Khan might have been baptised, but Christians did well again as evidenced by Marco Polo discovering Nestorian Christians in many cities. These may have been Mongolian or Turkic; they might well have included Chinese groups from underground fragments (248). There were memories of the persecution of 845 CE leaving nothing of structure and they knew this was the religion of their ancestors in China. No one knew about the hidden trasures including the descriptive Stone Sutra. Marco Polo brought the people to court and an edict of freedom followed, and there were 700,000 in number. (249).
Then came the end. Mongolian Yuan Dynasty rule was not prosperous and agriculture declined (Carter, 1978, 91-92). In 1260 the Marmaluks of Egypt defeated the Mongols near Nazareth and the Mongolians turned towards Islam, and the Church finally fell (except for a time on the east coast) when the Yuan dynasty fell in 1368 (Palmer, 2001, 249) by its withdrawal north of the Great Wall of China after attacks by the Red Turbans (Carter, 1978, 91). Chi Yuan Chang took power and was the first Ming Dynasty emperor.
When in the 1500s and 1600s Roman Catholic Jesuits went to China they knew nothing of the Church of the East there, a Church where an altered but recognisable and faithful Christian core spoke in the language of Chinese issues of salvation, yet which had relied on the support of the Chinese State for its wellbeing as had the imperial Church of the West. However, not being the only religion and always foreign, reliance on the State was something that was to be its downfall.

The Missionary Jesus Sutras

The Jesus Sutras were created for the mission to Tang China. They had been written with reference to other Buddhist, Taoist and Greek teachings that were known about at the time. They were then translated in China where the language and its concepts came into play. The Jesus Sutras grew in number in China (thus new ones were specifically Chinese) and were sealed in Dunhuang at around 1005 CE, along with those of other religions, although it is possible some Christian ones as others may have come from elsewhere. (See Palmer, 2001, 50-59)
The first Sutra Martin Palmer has called The Sutra of the Teachings of the World-Honoured One, translated in 641 CE (Palmer, 2001, 51) and the Chinese name is The Lokajvesta Teaching on Charity, Part 3. Lokajvesta is a title for the Buddha as World Teacher. The translations of this are the simplest and make errors into the Chinese characters. It probably used as its source a book popular within the Church of the East called Teachings of the Apostles by Tatian (110-180 CE) (103-104), attempting to summarise Jesus in the gospels but drawing on Chinese images and characters when translated.
The first Sutra speaks of the physical manifestation 641 years ago (that precise - earliest use of Exigus' calendar) and that its teachings are across the world with its believers. It contains a Lord's Prayer fragment for teaching. It claims the One Sacred Spirit will give what one really needs so not to worry. People should tell the truth but not in front of swine, look for the best in others and correct oneself, and do to others as would have done to oneself. Jesus could not have avoided death, and it discusses the crucifixion and burial and is specifically against the idea the disciples stole the body (it was a Jewish rumour, it says in an anti-semitic competitive point). Jesus rose through the action of the World Honoured One's qi (dynamic spirit). The first woman Eve caused the lies of humanity so the women were the first witnesses to tell the truth about this to show that the Messiah had forgiven them and should be treated properly in future. Jesus will be with them and the Sutra describes Pentecost and early Church sufferings. People should actually follow the true Way or will end up in the Earth Prisons. Jesus told the disciples (of ordinary people) to go out and teach the world and baptise in the names of the Trinity (Pure wind for Holy Spirit). It is, though, unitarian in theology (which puzzles Palmer):
The Messiah is not the Honoured One [God]. Instead through his body he showed the people the Honoured One. (4:12-13, in Palmer, 2001, 58, and 63).
The Heavenly Honoured One sends the Spirit force to save and this force teaches the truth, unique compared with spirits and deities. Of the resurrection it says:
Nothing like it has ever been heard of before. (66)
(Detailed summary from Palmer, 2001, 60-69)
The second Sutra Martin Palmer has called The Sutra of Cause, Effect and Salvation although its Chinese name is The First Treatise on the Oneness of Heaven (52). It is similar to the Indo-Greek Buddhist sutra Milindapanha about cosmology and philosophy (origin 100s to 000s BCE) and involves a Christian-Buddhist engagement of concepts and world views. (See Palmer, 2001, 135-139)
It says everything is created by the One Sacred Spirit, and humanity by that which can be seen and that which cannot. The Sacred Spirit brings about the elements of earth, fire, water and air, which was an act of compassion. Nothing else can bring about existence. Everything contains the Sacred Spirit. Things are visible and invisible in two natures: everything has body which dies and the animating Sacred Spirit which does not. The soul has Five Skandas of form, perception, consciousness, action and knowledge and without their physicality the soul cannot exist, and they clothe the soul. The ghosts of the dead will again be clothed by the Five Skandas and come back to life, but this time in perfection and without needs. Qi creates the body (like clay) and soul (like a sculptor). A rich karma by living properly (and only possible in this world) will enhance the Five Skandas formed in the mother's womb and go on to shape the next life. Knowledge and soul are eternal. There was no way to be free of sins except by the One Sacred Spirit entering this world. He suffered pain and rejection before returning. Bad ghostly spirits try to draw people into confusion and evil. Evils ones do truly evil, foolish ones get into evil. The leader here is the Cruel Evil Ghost or San nu. People who do not know the One Sacred Spirit cannot have good fortune: there is no chance of the compassion of release and they are like animals who cannot understand, cannot make sacrifices and do not worship the One Sacred Spirit. People so led are doomed to be reborn in the 10,000 kalpas [ages] and cannot escape rebirth. (Detailed summary from Palmer, 2001, 139-146)
The third Sutra is The Sutra of Origins, translated probably with the first one in 641 CE. It uses distinctly Taoist concepts for missionary purposes.
Everything visible and invisible is from the One Sacred Spirit. By its mysterious powers and work heaven and earth are stable and without change, and heaven stays in place. Their stability is evidence for His existence. Humanity is restless, however, in between heaven and earth. Each person has just one heavenly soul in the body just as there is in heaven and earth. Spirit and soul are the two seeds of being (both needed to create a true human being): each is all pervasive. The One Sacred Spirit is everywhere, existing in wu wei (actionless action): existing in nonexistence but never extinguished into nonbeing. Existence needs the nonexisting unending Spirit. (Detailed summary from Palmer, 2001, 146-150)
The fourth Sutra Martin Palmer has called The Sutra of Jesus Christ or perhaps The Sutra of Jesus Messiah, as Ye-su Mishisuo is a transliteration of Jesus Messiah. This is from 645 CE and distinctly Buddhist in the teachings of Jesus. It has a string Tibetan influence too, and odd in terms of not fitting into religious and philosophical traditions, where qi is more passive and simply exists in every body during life (152). It has Jainism and Hinduism in it. Confucian ideas (about loyal harmonious order, 122-125) are there too. (See Palmer, 2001, 150-157)
The Messiah taught the laws of Yahweh. He was surrounded by Buddhas and arhats (semi divine Buddha disciples). He saw the suffering of the living and taught: everything is born, dies and decays, returns to the earth and continues suffering. God is like the Wind everywhere and humanity lives because it is filled with God's breath. The Wind moves all teachers like Buddha. God is beyond death and birth, and it is heard but its shadow is not seen. Buddha's nature bestows grace: God gives grace. A person's heart and mind are not theirs but created by the Wind. The Wind's departure (death) is a time of distress but it is not seen. God's path is unknown too. People should show wisdom to be in the presence of the God they cannot see and this is following the Way of Heaven. Others die in ignominy.
God suffered to free all from karma, and no one is beyond this Buddha principle. No one can give life into statues of gods. Only those who worship the God can teach the Sutras. But one has to do good too and encourage others to do good. Those attracted to life's [surface] pleasures will end up with King Yama, God of judgment and rebirth. However, everyone should fear God: people who follow the laws of the Buddha but do not fear God will not be saved. Secondly, the Emperor had good previous lives, was appointed by God and should be obeyed. On the third level of importance, parents should be feared too: God will not reward fearing the Emperor but not parents. It follows that there are many covenants:
  1. Evil will be punished
  2. Not respecting the elderly will be punished
  3. We come from our parents
  4. Be kind and considerate and do no evil
  5. No living being should take a life of another living been and should encourage others not to too
  6. Do not to commit adultery and do not encourage others to commit adultery
  7. Do not steal
  8. Do not covet another man's wife, lands, palace or servants
  9. Do not to let envy lead to false witness
  10. Offer to God only what is one's own to give
There are more:
  • Do not bully the weaker or despise the more powerful
  • Take care of the hungry even if an enemy
  • Help the hardworking
  • Clothe the naked
  • Do not be dishonest to workers when there is no real work and so end up being unable to pay them - the Sacred Spirit will severely punish this
  • Give generously to the poor beggar
  • Do not mock the ill or handicapped, or laugh at the ragged
  • Tell the truth if someone is arrested, do not hinder the weak seeking justice
  • Do not brag and boast
  • Do not pick quarrels, do not side with parties, do not use influence with authority
  • Be humble and charitable
Those that know the precepts follow the covenants and this needs belief. God protects all life and replaced the former law with good deeds.
The Sutra looks at the Jesus story. God caused the Cool Breeze to come upon Mo Yan (Mary) with no husband and made her pregnant. The whole world saw it and the star was as big as a wagon wheel and understood. She gave birth to Ye Su in Wen-li-shi-ken [Jerusalem] in the orchard of But Lam [Bethlehem]. At five he talked and at twelve received the Holy Word and started to teach until thirty two. Ye Su came to the one who survived on vegetables and honey at the Shu-Nan [Jordan]. The Messiah took the precepts to the people. He followed the Way of Heaven saying do good and renounce evil. He instructed his twelve disciples, taught and healed. Scholars attacked and denounced the Messiah (but the people believed). They schemed and went to the King Pilate but the Messiah ignored them and became famous. When aged thirty two they went to Pilate who first washed his hands but the evil ones pressed the case until death was the only option. The Messiah gave up his body for the sake of all living beings. After washing his hair the evil ones took him to Chi-Chu for execution. He hung between two criminals on a scaffold for five hours on the sixth cleansing, vegetarian day. Early that morning came darkness, quaking and trembling and the dead walked from opened tombs. Those who saw this believed him to be who he said he was. (Detailed summary from Palmer, 2001, 159-168)
The first three early Sutras were compiled before mission but using other missionary experiences drawing on other faiths that might make sense to others, although the acts of translating changed them further towards the concepts within the Chinese language. The fourth sutra is a compilation of texts after getting to China (150). It would be seventy years before another Sutra was written (168).

The Liturgical Sutras

All the later Sutras originated in China by the Chinese some 130 years after Aluoben arrived and these engaged with the Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist world view and their existential questions (Palmer, 2001, 174). These are liturgical sutras, used in worship, hidden and preserved at Dunhuang (169). The final three come from Jingjing (meaning Luminous Purity) a likely Chinese convert and monk at Da Qin (181) of huge stature and a saint of the Chinese Church. (See Palmer, 2001, 169-177)
The first is dated 720 CE written by Su Yun, a monk at Da Qin monastery. It is called Da Qin Christian Liturgy of Taking Refuge in the Three, which Martin Palmer calls Taking Refuge in the Trinity (177). Its use of Jade reflects the Bodhissatva Avalokitesvara (Kuan Yin or Guanyin) or goddess of compassion which itself probably has source concepts in Mary mother of Jesus (179, also 241-245). (See Palmer, 2001, 177-180)
Reverence is given to the Great Holy Compassionate Father of all things. This radiant Jade-faced One is exhalted as the sun and moon with virtues greater than all the Holy Ones and Dharma Lords. The laws of compassion save like echoes through the world of a tolling golden bell. The Great Holy Law Giver brings people back to their original nature, saving countless souls, raising from the dust, redeeming from the saddened worlld of ghosts. The hundred ways bring clarity and kind hearted mercy. Angelic spirits cross the Ocean of Dharma. Peace in people's hearts is practiced through God, and is sung to by the congregation. The Great Law is the Heavenly Wheel returning to God. The Dharma Kings (saints) should be worshipped starting with the Sutra of Dharma King John, then the Sutra of the Psalms and the Path of Grace Sutra. (Detailed summary from Palmer, 2001, 180-181)
The second Sutra is called Invocation of the Dharma Kings and Sacred Sutras, which Martin Palmer calls Let Us Praise, as it repeats this often. It refers to some Sutras not yet discovered. (See Palmer, 2001, 181-183)
Its praise opens with Allaha, great Father and mysterious one, the Messiah his supreme Son, and the Holy Spirit who witnesses divinity, three beings creating as one. It lists as Dharma Kings to praise: John, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Moses, David, of Easter, Paul, of the Thousand Peacock Eyes, Simeon, Mar Sergius, George, Mar Barsauma, Simon and the Twenty Four, Henana, Hosea, Michael, Silas, Gur, Announcing Teachings - John. It calls to praise many Sutras which are the Constantly Bright Supreme Happiness; Origins; Subtle Peace and Happiness; Heavenly Treasures; Psalms; Message of Grace; Origin of Life; Understanding Truth; Precious Brilliance, and of Revealed Teaching; Charity and the Origin of the Soul; Broad Teaching and of the Three Levels; Discipline, Grace; Proclamation; The Acts of the Apostles according to Luke (not a Sutra!); Paul's Dharma, and of Zakarias; George the Monk, and of Anchillia; Ceremonies, and in Praise of three Powers; Laws of Moses, and of Elijah; Bethlehem, and Announcing Dharma King; Messiah - creator of Heaven and Earth; Four Gates, and of Revelation; Mar Sergius, and of the Cross, and of Hymns. (Detailed summary from Palmer, 2001, 183-185)
The Sutra of Returning to Your Original Nature is a text for chanting about salvation and comes from 780-790 CE. It is an explanatory conversation composed by Jingjing featuring the Messiah, his disciple Simon and all characters who have escaped desire. It uses Buddhist and Taoist concepts of salvation. (See Palmer, 2001, 185-189)
Simon starts by saying we did not know the truth but need salvation and the Messiah relies that everything needs the True Law and what runs deep. Spiritual life can be damp. People thus must clear their minds, and stop wanting and doing; be open to purity and stillness; to receive the truth; understand cause and effect; and lead to Peace and Happiness.
Simon is told if the Messiah is everywhere then he does not know who he is, and similarly if truly in his words then he does know what he signifies; and if a person has a made up name no one knows him truly (all of which sounds quite postmodern!). People try to find out who they are generating desire, thus movement and anxiety, thus cannot find contentment. So he teaches no wanting and doing without doing. Disturbing thoughts are not sought and one can find the source of pure empty being. So one should be detached and go towards enlightenment.
He, the Messiah, is the Way to the Spirits. Among the people he can embody forms beyond knowledge. He protects everyone and anyone, helps those who have gone wrong, as never seen before. Pure effortless emptiness has not been seen before. Now pious people become famous and become driven by ambition. They do not achieve peace and happiness. The all knowing essence speaks through Him so those who speak piously and yet do not seek fame do find Peace and Happiness. He sees, hears, smells, tastes, embodies, and his heart is in the law; the reality behind, and undistracted: principles leading to the hghest awakening and from it everyone can be saved. The teaching has been in heaven from the beginning. It brings incomparable forture. All good people should gather, pray and sing for the light will come and enlighten, giving Peace and Happiness and transcending all rebirths, for eveyone.
It cannot be proved and is beyond definition. So he says, no wanting, no doing, no piousness, no truth: these are the four essential laws. One should follow them to be free and feel compassion again and again without showing off.
So praise is given to the Limitless, Highest One, teaching this triumphant law beyond imaginging. The Messiah does not pretend to understand but goes on studying them until the end.
So Simon asks about these Four Laws. If there is no existence how can there be happiness? It is a wonderful question, replies the Honoured One. He "repeats" that Peace and Happiness like this exist only when nothing else exists. One would naturally gravitate to these teachings. He tells the crowd all gods and gurus agree that this Sutra is profound and unimaginable and is the Way. One can know the Way of Peace and Happiness in the heart. Share by singing and praying together: every generation is united in this communion, and people come to this religion because of the goodness in their past lives finding Happiness. Simon's ancestors bear fruit from their karma deposited into him.
Everyone then praises God again to be watched over and protected as down the generations. Some people are lost and need to come back. The Messiah agreed to this because some do thirst for healing. He tells a story of a sick man helped by a close relative to cut steps and use ladders to climb a mountain and reach the top to be healed. Simon is told people came to the mountain weary of desires, and could not scale the mountain, but the Compassionate Knowing One is like the close relative and teaches them.
There are Ten Laws for knowing the world.
  1. People grow old and sick and no one gets out alive.
  2. We also have to leave the family.
  3. Whether powerful or otherwise, nothing lasts forever.
  4. Some provoke everyone and some exploit and yet both can be killed in an instant.
  5. Misers accumulate wealth but they can't take it with them.
  6. The sex obsessed fantasise about having it all the time despite being left frustrated and depressed, like a tree invaded by termites until rotten.
  7. Another view is of those who drink and party, sleeping around in a mixed up state so they do not know what is real or a dream: all churned up and unclear.
  8. People can see life as an entertaining drama but this wastes the body and depletes the spirit.
  9. Another view is to wander from religion to religion seeking enlightenment but ending up confused.
  10. Some believe and appear to know but they share nothing and the truth dies with them, like a hidden and useless oyster.
The Four Essential Laws of the Dharma are:
  1. No wanting: the Law of No Desire.
  2. Do not put on a mask of appearance: Walk the way of No Action.
  3. No piousness so do not broadcast good deeds: the Way of No Virtue.
  4. Do not try to control truth, take sides and treat everyone equally: reflect without judgment.
The Luminous Religion and its laws are the best armour and can protect all life which can carry across the ocean of life and death reaching the shores of the Land of Peace and Happiness.
The dying ones in a plague can be revived: the Laws of this Light and the best balm, through the pain and hardships of this life to return to true knowing. Everyone should chant this day and night as the inexhaustible teachings bring back clear seeing and return people to original nature, true beingness, freed from all falsehood and illusion. Someone with just a little love can walk the Bright Path in the Sutras and not suffer harm going towards true Peace and Happiness. One should make friends of this teaching and by following it one becomes a light to the world.
The crowd sang praises wanting more but the Messiah said this is enough now, although the Word cannot be stopped. When one is cured more drinking is not necessary. His teaching is only the beginning of touching one's true original nature and too much would not be right. The crowd agreed, thanked the Messiah warmly and began to disperse. (Detailed summary from Palmer, 2001, 289-201)
The fourth liturgical sutra, also by Jingjing, is called The Christian Liturgy in Praise of the Three Sacred Powers, which Martin Palmer calls The Supreme. It was found in the cave at Dunhuang. (See Palmer, 2001, 202)
It begins with love from the highest skies, Earth's palms open in peace, our truest being anchors in God's purity...
You are Allaha: Compassionate Father of the Three. (202)
Everything praises and every being takes refuge. Beyond knowing, beyond words, the truth and steadfast:
Compassionate Father, Radiant Son,
Pure Wind King - three in one. (203)
Who is supreme, lives in light, and has never been seen, the only unchanging of spirits, making all that is good: the worshipper reflects this in Compassion and grace. The Messiah is called the Great Holy Son of the Honoured One, and countless of the suffering are saved:
Supreme King, Will of Ages,
Compassionate joyous lamb
Loving all who suffer
Fearless as you strive for us
Free us of the karma of our lives
Bring us back to our original nature
Delivered from all danger. (203)
The Divine son invited to sit at the right hand of the Father, the Great Messiah, is asked to receive the prayers, to send the raft of salvation from the burning streams.
Great Teacher: I stand in awe of the Father
Great Teacher: I am awed by the Holy Lord
Great Teacher: I am speechless before the King of Dharma
Great Teacher: I am dazzled by the Enlightened Mind
Great Teacher: You who do everything to save us. (204)
So everything looks to Him without thinking. People want his healing rain to overcome what has withered and so water the roots of kindness. He is the Great Holy Honoured One, the Messiah; and worshippers love their Father, Boundless Sea of Compassion, and the Clear Pure Wind. His clarity cleanses through the Law reaching beyond all grace. (Detailed summary from Palmer, 2001, 202-204)

The Stone Sutra

The final main sutra considered is the Stone Sutra written by Jingjing. It was erected in 781 CE, at the same time as the Pagoda was built at Da Qin. (For the full introduction See Palmer, 2001, 206-224, infomation of which is used elsewhere in this webpage)
After introducing the purpose, administration and author of the monument containing the Stone Sutra it begins at the cosmos. There was a true stillness, a natural constant, and primordial void of the Most High from which the Spirit of the void emerged, the Most High Lord. He enlightened the Holy Ones. He is Joshua who embodies the three subtle and wondrous bodies and was condemned to the cross to save the people of the four directions. From the beaten up primordial winds he created two vapours and from the grey emptiness came the sky and the earth. The sun and the moon were set and night and day arrived. He created myriad things and then people. They had the original nature of goodness and were appointed as guardians of creation. Their minds were empty, their hearts were simple and innocent and they were content. They had no desire but Satan influenced them towards glitter and gold. They fell into death and lies and the 365 forms of sin. They put themselves inside their own web of retribution. There is material gain, some think they gain blssings from prayers, and some are treacherous. They get nowhere and within the wheel of fire they find themselves burnt and obliterated, unable to return [to goodness].
Ye Su, from the three subtle bodies, became human and came on behalf of the Lord of Heaven giving the good teachings. A virgin gave birth in the Da Qin Empire [the West]. The message was given to the Persians who followed the bright light with gifts. The 24 holy Ones have given the teachings, and heaven decreed that the "Three in One Purity that cannot be spoken of" (226) should be proclaimed. The teachings can restore goodness to believers, restore dust to truth, reveal the gate of the three constants, lead to life, destroy death and destroy evil forever. He set afloat the raft of salvation and compassion so we can ascend to the palace of light and unite with the spirit. He carried out deliverence and when done ascended to immortality in daylight. He left 27 books of scriptures, revealed the workings of the Origin and gave the method of purification by water. He gathered the four radiances to be united with the void.
"The Eastern facing rites can give you the path of life. Those who choose to grow beards, shave their heads, travel on the open roads, renounce desire, have neither male nor female slaves, see all people as equal, and do not hoard material goods, are followers of My rites of purification." (226)
The Church people practice abstinence to subdue desire, stillness builds their foundation, at seven there is a service to pray for everyone's salvation, and once a week an audience with heaven. The truth cannot be named but when forced it is the Religion of Light: highly sacred and the Great Way.
It came at the time of Emperor Taizong brought by Aluoben. He was welcomed and asked to translate his scriptures. The Emperor recognised the truth and with a decree said the teachings, mysterious and beyond understanding, should be practiced throughout the land. In the capital the Da Qin monastery was erected for 21 monks and the Emperor wrote for a sign:
Reveal the splendour and brightness of heaven; glorify the Religion of Light saints; and let the benevolent teachings illuminate this realm of existence. (227)
This religion in the world stretches far, including where there are no thieves, people are happy and healthy, only virtue is promoted, buildings are large and spacious, and the country is rich in culture and learning. Only the Religion of Light is practised there. The Emperor decreed monasteries elsewhere, Aluoben was entitled 'Lord Protector of the Great Teachings' which spread. Some Buddhists in one eastern district slandered the Church but a meeting averted a disaster. Emperor Xuanzong ordered a church to be built to teach people more simply and many were converted. There was other political support from many emperors and some believed and practiced and saw others did with rewards and benefits... A monk was awarded. Emperor Suzong invited monks of the four monasteries to plan charitable activities with him and a priest was invited to write a plaque, written to say the True Lord of the Primordial Void took on human form whose compassion was limitless banishing the dark and we are witnesses. The Way can accomplish anything anywhere. The benefits are penetrating the mysteries, being blessed with a good conscience, having greatness with emptiness, returning to stillness and forgiving, being compassionate and delivering all people, doing good deeds and helping people reach the other shore. People are calmed in stormy seas, they are helped to understand the nature of things, keep purity, nourish, respect all life and answer the needs of those believing from the heart.
If forced to describe it this faith is the work of the Three-in-one Lord.
The Stone Sutra ends with details of its erection and attendance at the opening. (Detailed summary from Palmer, 2001, 224-232)


What this story shows is that a Church can and did present a believed core revelation to another culture in its language. Unlike the Roman Church, and Byzantium, this Church did not pretend to have the field to itself and thus had to adapt into other languages and cultures. Arguably this did alter the core, and questions whether there is a core or where the boundary is between that and the packaging (in any religion, in any place, including how Christianity emerged into and came out of the Pauline and Greek world view). The Church of the East, formed out of the Nestorian experience, emerged after the formation of the belief in the Trinity but it can be seen how that belief loosened with a non-state or a more creative dynamic of authority and writing. There is also a question of clashes of thought forms: did the Messiah overrule or assist through good karma? It seems that both is the case, but is not Messianic salvation a replacement for karma (all karma, not just bad karma)? Linked to this is the clash between the Pauline radical salvation for all message (which is contained awkwardly in the Church of the East, even if it is not clear about the origins of this salvation scheme and social radicalism), and the setting up of monasteries. Monasteries are about spiritual inequality, where the mass of the people are nowhere near the spiritual abilities of the monks (and nuns, although female achievement was problematic in eastern faith) and indeed where monks require and receive spiritual training. Whatever has been the attachment of priestcraft to historical Western Christianity, and the establishment of monasteries and convents for spiritual discipline, Pauline Christianity is about the offering of rapid salvation by faith for all. So there are structural and belief tensions here. Certainly monasteries are a fast way to establish a faith presence - churches can follow on - but they are also subject to quick closure and closing the monasteries crippled the Church of the East. Finally, Churches have in many places expanded through attachment to authority: this incoming Church could hardly have criticised the emperors, and yet Christianity historically started in some oppositional stance related to authority. This "kow towing" to the system was its strength and ultimately its weakness. Despite its best efforts the Chinese Church was always a foreign import and had never established itself as the legitimising power over Chinese emperors. In the west Churches and denominations changed but traditional authority always needed a traditional Church.
It would be interesting to see if any free development of Christianity could produce as a variety a rebirth of the forms of the Church of the East, or if Chinese Christianity has to follow the ideological forms of the West. Time will tell and time is very long. In the Postscript Martin Palmer sees this Eastern Church experience as a model for faith in our differently thinking age to that in the history of the Western Church (251-254). No doubt this is a rich possibility, and rave Churches have shown some mixing, as have radical theologians, but many a parish and committed church today preaches in the most narrow, intellectually-removed, inherited and yet culturally popularised form. The insight of the Church of the East in China exposes just how much these Western supernaturalists are trapped in their own cultural form treated in their such an absolutist manner. An Eastern Taoist or Buddhist Christianity would seem to be institutionally marginal (within an increasingly socially marginal Christian religion). How it might emerge might have to be institutionally light, developing in a few parishes and congregations here and there, and in some outside gatherings elsewhere.
People who move to Taoism and Buddhism usually reject Christianity. They reject what they think they know is Christianity, or the version they have encountered. This may be an over reaction; however, the cosmic and supernatural elements of the emergence of the Messiah will probably be superfluous for anyone who uses Christian ideas in a Buddhist scheme of improvement. There is little sense in adopting notions such as the arrival of the baby in an actual nativity with a wagon wheel sized star: Westerners know this to be a story (and biblical criticism leads to the basic conclusion that the baby Jesus was historically unknown, of two biological parents, born in Galilee - Nazareth or maybe Capernaum - with no census likely to have taken place or of geographical relevance). Also it is to be noted that the faith of the Church of the East moved away from resurrection, communion and, if less so, sacrifical crucifixion. The teachings became the most important, not the life and death and some rising again, although that rising again remained a kind of proof of the teachings given by the cosmic Messiah.
A revised, multi-faith Christianity, if it happened, would rather be stripped of both the cosmic origins and the resurrection as central, and probably will move towards meditation and worship and perform fewer communion rites. It would not be about messianic faith, or salvation by faith, but salvation through spiritual practice and teachings compatible with the Jesus who turned social and religious logic upside down. The Church of the East was not moving towards a removal of the supernatural, although it has the seeds of this within for a culture such as the West today and possibly a materialist (and hopefully democraticised) East. Still, the point is fairly well proven that religion is a cultural entity and no one faces religion and spirituality without first encountering culture, and both are pretty much inseparable. The overall conclusion must be that making a distinction between a religious core and its packaging is highly problematic.

Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist Website - Liberal and Thoughtful



BBC News (2002), Silk Road Treasures United on the Web [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed August 7, 2003, 14:38].

Carter, R. (1978), The Coming of Civilization, London: MacDonald Educational, St, Michael (Marks and Spencer), 90-93.

Hampson, K., Swift V., Whitfield, S., et al. (June 2003), International Dunhuang Project [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: , originally October 1998, last updated June 2003 [Accessed August 7, 2003, 14:50].

Pagan, A. (1988), God's Scotland? The Story of Scottish Christian Religion, Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing Company, 28-29

Palmer, M. (2001), The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Religion of Taoist Christianity, London: Judy Piatkus.

Ballantine Publishing Group in the USA

ISBN 0 7499 2250 8 (hardback)
ISBN 0 7499 2265 6 (paperback)

Tranlsations of the Sutras by Eva Wong, Li Rong Rong and Martin Palmer.

Van de Weyer, R. (1997), Bede: Celtic and Roman Christianity in Britain, Berkhamsted: Arthur James.


I have a personal interest in that a friend David Strachan has had a Buddhist Sutra from Dunhuang sponsored in his name and Ian Strachan ( is named as a supporter.