The Jesus Sutras (Part 9): Refuge and Return

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

Shower us with Your Healing Rain!
Help us to overcome, give life to what has withered,
and water the roots of kindness in us.
—The Supreme, vv. 23-24

Development of a Christian liturgy

The Late Jesus Sutras, also known as the Liturgical Sutras, refer to four Chinese Christian texts that were written in the late eighth century—with the exception of the first one, which was written in 720. The Chinese gave them the following names:

  1. Taking Refuge in the Trinity
  2. Invocation of the Dharma Kings and Sacred Sutras, or Let Us Praise
  3. The Sutra of Returning to Your Original Nature
  4. The Christian Liturgy in Praise of the Three Sacred Powers, or The Supreme

Unlike the early sutras I wrote about in previous posts, these sutras were composed by the Chinese monks themselves, without the oversight of foreign missionaries. The church in China had by this point taken the leap from missionary church to truly indigenous church. 

These sutras are a mixture of supplication and praise to the three persons of the Trinity. Martin Palmer says that they were used as part of the liturgy of the church, with priest and congregation reciting these words in a call-and-response format. They read much like the biblical Psalms, but with a wholly Asian flavor. They are absolutely beautiful and can be read in their entirety (well, their English translation, anyway) in Martin Palmer’s book The Jesus Sutras.

Only one true refuge

Chinese Trinity

A Chinese painting depicting the Trinity.

One of the most basic rituals in Buddhism is the Triple Refuge chant: “To the Buddha I go for refuge; to the Dharma I go for refuge; to the Sangha I go for refuge.” The Dharma refers to the Buddha’s teachings, and “Sangha” refers to a community of practicing Buddhists. Buddha, his teachings, and Buddhist community—these are the “Three Jewels” of Buddhism, the “Three Refuges,” and one must affirm them to become a Buddhist.

In the Liturgical Sutras, the Chinese Christians tweak this chant by affirming instead that they take refuge in the triune God—in his person, his teachings, and his community of saints. They refer to God the Father as “Lord of Everything,” and the Creator of salvation; to God the Son as “the King of Dharma,” “the Enlightened Mind,” “radiant Jade-Faced One,” and “Compassionate Joyous Lamb”; and to God the Holy Spirit as “Pure Wind King,” and “Mighty Compassionate Wind.”

They also acknowledge the superiority of Christ to other “Holy Ones and Dharma Lords” (Taking Refuge in the Trinity, v. 3)—his virtue, power, and grace are greater than those of the teachers who came before him, they say. And whereas Buddhism is based on the belief that all things are impermanent, the Jesus Sutras teach that there is one exception: God, who alone is steadfast and unchanging (The Supreme, v. 13). Verses such as these reiterate what the earlier sutras taught about the exclusive nature of truth and the one-way path to salvation:

  • If you do not follow the law of God, you are “following the wrong path.” . . . “If you do not fear God, even if you live by the Law of the Buddha, you will not be saved.” (Sutra of Jesus Christ 3:18, 33)
  • “Those who wander from the True Way are sinful and follow not the path of the One Sacred Spirit, but rather a false way.” (Sutra of the Teachings of the World-Honored One 8:12)

Returning to our original nature

The Jesus Sutras teach that if you take refuge in the supreme truth of Jesus Christ, he will bring you back to your original nature.

  • “Great Holy Law Giver / You bring us back to our original nature.” (Taking Refuge in the Trinity, v. 6)
  • “The Great Law [of karma] is now the Heavenly Wheel / Of returning—to You.” (Taking Refuge in the Trinity, v. 12)
  •  “Our truest being is anchored in Your Purity.” (The Supreme, v. 4)

The term “original nature” occurs in both Taoist and Buddhist thought. It suggests that all humans are innately good but become corrupt or lose their way when they begin to subscribe to the illusion of self. I talked a bit about this in a previous post, about how original nature differs from the Christian doctrine of original sin. At first I saw them as polar opposites and completely irreconcilable. They certainly do carry different implications, but actually, they can fit together somewhat if informed by a proper view of holiness and grace. Man was created as an inherently good, pure, enlightened (right-view) being. And we have severed our roots to this goodness, by developing and acting from a wrong view of reality (we place ourselves at the center of the universe, where God should be). We are ignorant of Truth, and we need to be liberated from this ignorance, desperately.

However, Buddhists and Christians have different ideas of what “Truth” is. For one thing, Buddhists don’t have the same conception of sin as Christians; in fact, they don’t use that word at all. Instead they talk about ignorance, and of the “negative seeds” (like fear, anger, hatred, greed) that take root in that ignorance. Buddhists, of course, do try to live virtuous lives (I’ve never heard of a religion that doesn’t espouse virtue), and, as we’ve seen earlier in this series, they do believe that bad actions deserve to be punished. But because most Buddhists do not believe in God, they do not see their “negative seeds” as contributing to any great cosmic separation, only individual suffering on earth. They do not see their ignorance as an offense against a holy God but only a personal shortcoming.

The natural outcome of this line of thinking is that Buddhists see themselves as their own saviors, whereas Christians know we don’t have the capacity to save ourselves, because we need to be saved from ourselves. We can’t just tap into our original nature by digging inside ourselves; we have to have it implanted there by Someone who still possesses and embodies it.

The Jesus Sutras talk about original nature quite a bit, but they put Jesus into the equation.  Jesus helps us become the truest version of ourselves. His Spirit is what empowers us to be who we were created to be:  holy, happy, worshippers of God, lovers of people.

Read the final part, Part 10: ‘He is the scaling ladder.’

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2 Responses to The Jesus Sutras (Part 9): Refuge and Return

  1. Tom says:

    With all due respect, I think you better reread your references in the context they were given in the Sutras. Pulling part of a concept out of a sentence then trying to forget what the rest of the sentence or paragraph says, isn’t good research.
    I reference your using the quotes from the Sutra of Jesus Christ, chapter three.
    I have studied both versions of the Sutras and do not see your conclusions.

    • Tom,

      Thank you for your comment. May I ask which claim of mine in particular you take issue with? If I have ignored any verses that are inconvenient to my interpretation, I assure you that it was unintentional. I did not intend for my series to be an exhaustive commentary on the Sutras, which is why there are several aspects that I don’t address, but that doesn’t mean that I should overlook the full picture. Please let me know what concept you feel that I am taking out of context, and in what way, so that I can correct my post if that is indeed the case.

      I *think* that you’re referring to the idea of the superiority of Jesus Christ to other spiritual teachers. I know that it’s an unpopular view—whether you’re in China, the U.S., or anywhere else—but that’s the view that I see supported by the Jesus Sutras. The Sutras bear a respect for other teachers and teachings but cast Jesus as unique. He’s called the Messiah, the “supreme Son” of Allaha, the Great Father (Let Us Praise sutra)—and, let’s face it, this body of writings is all about him (hence the name “the Jesus Sutras”).

      You say I quoted inaccurately from the Sutra of Jesus Christ. But after rereading all five chapters, I see again that it records the importance of having a fear of God, an understanding of his grace, and a heart of obedience to his law. Granted, there is no specific creed laid out, but the very idea that there’s even such a thing as a “wrong” path (translated in other Sutras as “false” or “sinful”) is something that you don’t find in Buddhism or Taoism. Is there a broader context that I’m missing?

      I know that Nestorian Christianity is said to have died out in China in large part because it was too accommodating, so it could be that what I see in the early Sutras and more vaguely in the late Sutras was not faithfully upheld in practice.

      Like I said, please do point me to any other verses or scholarly sources that you feel will correct my misunderstanding of the Sutras’ message.

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