The Jesus Sutras (Part 2): The Religion of Light

(For an introduction to this series, read Part 1.)

To penetrate the mysteries, to bless with a good conscience, to be great and yet empty, to return to stillness and be forgiving, to be compassionate and to deliver all people, to do good deeds and help people reach the other shore—these are the great benefits of our path of cultivation. To calm people in stormy times, to help them understand the nature of things, to maintain purity, to nourish all things, to respect all life, and to answer the needs of those whose beliefs come from the heart—these are the services the Religion of Light Church can offer. (Stone Sutra 3:54-55, trans. Martin Palmer)

This passage was written onto a stele in Xian by Chinese Christian monks in 781 AD, along with about 2,000 other Chinese characters that together form a stone document that is as much a theological treatise as it is an early history of Christianity in China; religion scholar Martin Palmer refers to this text as the “Stone Sutra,” or “Monument Sutra.” Essentially, the two verses quoted above are a mission statement—the Chinese Christians describe who they are, what they stand for, and how they plan to serve the community. They also thank God for blessing them with the power, through his Spirit, to enact these divine virtues. Religion of Light(I know this sounds egregiously like eisegesis, but I promise, I’m interpreting it in light of the full text of the Stone Sutra, which goes into greater detail about the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Ye Su [Jesus], as well as his salvific role. More on this in later posts.)

I call them “Chinese Christians,” but really, the name they gave to their new faith was “the Religion of Light.” (See the two Chinese characters they used at right.)  

I find it fascinating that the Religion of Light Church was state-funded. And not only did the emperor support the construction of a Christian monastery and study center, he had it built in the sacred Lou Guan Tai precinct, a Taoist stronghold of immense size, wealth, and power. Palmer says that this would be comparable to a new religion being allowed to build a temple within the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral in the Middle Ages. “Something important had to have happened to impress the emperor and lead him to grant this new faith its uniquely favored position within the site of his own national and spiritual heritage,” Palmer writes. “Perhaps it was the wisdom of the Jesus Sutras, already being translated, or the lifestyle of the monks that created such a profound influence on the emperor, his Court, and his scholars.”

Emperor Taizong

Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. Hanging scroll, color on silk.

One Christmas, the emperor (Taizong) even issued an imperial declaration that acknowledged the good works of the Christians and of their Christ: “Due to your wonderful and meritorious works, many people have found salvation. Because the sacred took on human form, the poisons of the world can be stopped.”

I want to dwell once more on the “services” of the Religion of Light Church, as listed in the Stone Sutra. These are the ways in which the Religion of Lighters aimed to glorify God, and what they considered privileges and joys:

  1. To penetrate the mysteries
  2. To bless with a good conscience
  3. To be great and yet empty
  4. To return to stillness
  5. To be forgiving
  6. To be compassionate
  7. To deliver all people
  8. To do good deeds
  9. To help people reach the other shore
  10. To calm people in stormy times
  11. To help people understand the nature of things
  12. To maintain purity
  13. To nourish all things
  14. To respect all life
  15. To answer the needs of those whose beliefs come from the heart

How well does the (universal) church live out each of these points today? What about you, as an individual? Do you regularly and passionately pursue a deeper knowledge of God? Do you maintain a good conscience always? Do you comfort and provide for those around you? Do you rest in Jesus, and help lead others to that rest?

Read Part 3: The Stone Sutra.

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