A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, January 11, 2015
THE JESUS SUTRAS
Some Early Morning Thoughts on What Might Have Been and Perhaps What Could Yet Be
Compassionate Father, Radiant Son,
Pure Wind King - three in one.
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.
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.
— Praise of the Three Sacred Powers
Okay, I'm a sucker for those historical "what if" kind of things. You know, what if the Spanish Armada defeated the English, or what if the South had won the Civil War, or the Nazi's the Second World War. Decades later, I'm still haunted from reading Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle about that last what if. People have been telling me for years I have to read Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, where the plague takes away ninety nine percent of Europe's population instead of a third, leaving the world to be shaped by Muslim, Chinese, and indigenous American cultures.
Of course my favorites of such things are religious, or, at least have a religious thread. Kind of obvious, I guess. Which I'm sure is in part why people keep pointing me to that Years of Rice and Salt. And, so, of course, why one of my favorite books in recent years is Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which posits a world where Israel didn't happen. There are tons of them, and I could go on about them at length.
However, today I'd like to hold up the intriguing realities of Eastern and Western religious encounter and speculate just a little on some of the "what ifs" that with just a few things going one way rather than another could have left us with a very different Christianity, or, at least, a very interesting and vibrant alternative possibility to what has become normative in the West.
I suspect most of us here are familiar with the fact that the story of the Buddha made its way West in the early centuries of the Church, and the Buddha even ended up a saint in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches as Josaphat of Sts Barlaam and Josaphat. Their feast, admittedly not celebrated so much since the historical connections were made, is celebrated on the 27th of November for the Romans, and on the 26th of August in the Orthodox calendar. So, it doesn't take a lot of heavy lifting intellectually to figure the favor was returned. And it was.
A lot happened on that famous Silk Road that joined East and West.
In 1625 workers digging near a temple discovered a large stone monument. Local intellectuals began to examine it and discovered it recorded the story of a long lost Christian mission to China. Written in Chinese and Syriac it recounted the early Seventh century mission of Bishop Alopen and the establishment of the "Luminous Religion," a Chinese branch of the Church of the East, sometimes called the Nestorian Church. What's particularly interesting is how the tablet's Christianity doesn't quite line up with Nestorian orthodoxy in some interesting ways. The trinity, for instance, is mentioned, as is the incarnation, but there's no reference to a crucifixion or resurrection. It was also clear that the Luminous Religion had synthesized with both Buddhism and most of all with Taoism. All so tantalizing, but just this one large stone monument left as testimony to something long gone.
It appeared that during the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution in the middle of the Ninth Century, while it knocked Buddhism back on its heels, it also wiped out several smaller religious communities, including the Luminous Religion, which apparently the authorities considered a Buddhist heresy.
So, what the Luminous Religion actually was remained a delicious hint at something, but no one was sure of what precisely. Then on the 25th of June, in 1900 a Daoist monk stumbled onto a cache of manuscripts hidden in a cave near Dunhuang, an ancient city along that Silk Road. This discovery ranks with finding the Dead Sea scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library, and in fact in some ways exceeds them in importance. It proved a treasure trove of documents, some fifty thousand of them, in fifteen different languages, including at least one language that has otherwise been lost to the sands of history. Some of the Daoist and Buddhist texts are priceless, deeply re-orienting a world of scholarship. The cache also included the oldest printed book in the world, an edition of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra.
And it included texts from that long gone Luminous Religion, what have come to be called the Jesus Sutras. Sutra means thread, and is used in the sense of our shared Indo-European English's "suture," a binding thread. In Buddhism a Sutra is a sacred text. And while Christian, the shifts from normative Christianity are such that many feel "Jesus Sutra" a more accurate characterization of these texts.
Now the best single source about the religion and its texts for us is Martin Palmer's The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity. A scholarly study, although it is not without its critics, many of whom suggest he slants his translations in ways that are not warranted by the texts themselves, making the Buddhist and Daoist influences larger than is warranted. Me, I'm going for his version whole hog.
There are many significant features of this Luminous Religion. One that caught me quickly is the blending of Guanyin, who had already been transformed from an indigenous Chinese goddess into the Buddhist archetype of compassion, reshapes once again with Mary, becoming a heartful image that many of us who've experienced both Buddhism and Christianity, including me, have also found ourselves. I'm also taken with the integration of Christian and Buddhist liturgical practices, and most important of all I'm just astonished at the "new" Christian texts of the Luminous Religion, those Jesus Sutras using Buddhist and Daoist imagery and idioms, and with all that transforming Christianity into something for me now very exciting and compelling. Its worth noting how this also happened earlier in Chinese religious history when Indian Buddhism came to China and began translating its texts into Chinese using Daoist terminology, and birthing out of that, that whole new Buddhism that we call Zen.
The Luminous Religion was, as it were, innocent of Augustine's terrible idea of original sin, instead embraced the loveliness of the world, and while celebrating the divine origins of their teacher, consistently emphasized his teachings as the truly important thing, describing a holy way of life. They embraced both reincarnation and karma. My friend the independent scholar Adrian Worsfold summarizes the Luminous Religion's followers as "vegetarians, (who) promoted non-violence, charity, sexual equality, care for nature, and were (nearly uniquely in their world strongly) anti-slavery." And, while it continues the Trinitarian formula for baptism, with the change of calling the spirit, "pure wind," the Luminous Religion's teachings otherwise appear to be pretty Unitarian, emphasizing "salvation by character." Well Unitarian if Unitarianism emerged out of Christianity, and Buddhism, and Taoism streaming together as a new version of the ancient Watercourse Way.
So, on the one hand a Westerner can find a lot easily recognizable in the Jesus Sutras, although often with a twist. For instance the Ten Commandments, or here "covenants."
The first covenant of God is that anything that exists and does evil will be punished, especially if they do not respect the elderly. The second covenant is to honor and care for elderly parents. Those who do this will be true followers of Heaven's Way. The third covenant is to acknowledge we have been brought into existence through our parents. Nothing exists without parents. The fourth covenant is that anybody who understands the precepts should know to be kind and considerate to everything, and to do no evil to anything that lives. The fifth covenant is that any living being should not take the life of another living being, and should also teach others to do likewise. The sixth covenant is that nobody should commit adultery, or persuade anyone else to do so. The seventh covenant is not to steal. The eighth covenant is that nobody should covet a living man's wife, or his lands, or his palace, or his servants. The ninth covenant is not to let your envy of somebody's good wife, or son, or house or gold, lead you to bear false witness against them. The tenth covenant is only to offer to God that which is yours to give.
And on the other hand there are teachings that more obviously echo the ancient wisdoms of Buddhism and Daoism, like the Four Essential Laws of Christian Dharma.
The first is no wanting. If your heart is obsessed with something, it manifests in all kinds of distorted ways. Distorted thoughts are the root of negative behaviorÉ_The second is no doing. Don't put on a mask and pretend to be what you're notÉ_The effort needed to hold a direction is abandoned, and there is simply action and reaction. So walk the Way of No Action. The third is no piousness. And what that means_is not wanting to have your good deeds broadcast to the nation. Do what's right to bring people to the truth_but not for your own reputation's sake. So anyone who teaches the Triumphant Law, practicing the Way of Light to bring life to the truth, will know peace and happiness in company. But don't talk it away. This is the Way of No Virtue. The fourth is no absolute. Don't try to control everything. Don't take sides in arguments about right and wrong. Treat everyone equally, and live from day to day. It's like a clear mirror that reflects everything anyway: Green or yellow or in any combination -_It shows everything, as well as the smallest of details. What does the mirror do? It reflects without judgment.
The Luminous Religion calls us to a middle path, a Buddhist, Daoist, Christian middle way. It calls us into a deep investigation of our own lives, and it calls us into a community of mutual accountability.
Martin Palmer tells us, "The Jesus Sutras offer salvation from what we have made of ourselves - salvation from karma or (if you rather) from the burden of 'original sin' - because beneath the layers of our inadequate actions lies an original nature that is good. These spiritual, theological, psychological, philosophical, and ethical insights are in the Jesus Sutras, often beautifully and simply portrayed in accessible images, stories, and concepts."
So fascinating, so wonderful. And so sad they were lost.
However Palmer adds how, in fact, they only await our discovery, yours and mine. He invites us to embark out on our own Silk Road, our own journey of discovery.
Palmer concludes his book with an observation. "After a thousand years, the Jesus Sutras have returned to us to shed light on the past, speak to our present, and, possibly, help shape our future."
Here I find myself thinking of that "what if," and realize in fact the door isn't closed, the door is wide open.
We find something wondrous being presented. For those who have the eyes to see it, ears to hear it.
We want something different? We want to change the world?
Well, we start with ourselves.
We need to let go of what we thought was so, what had to be so, and allow other possibilities to emerge.
And so an invitation:
Take a walk along the Silk Road for yourself.
And dig a little.
Read. Talk. And most of all, pay attention.
You never know what treasure might be revealed.
You might even find what if becomes what is.
And wouldn't that be a miracle?