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Spring 2002 Vol. 22 - No. 124 Religious Trends in China Today




Jesus-Messiah of Xi'an
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Yves Raguin, SJ
Translated from the French by Betty Ann Maheu, MM


        The article below is taken from Le Christ Chinois, Heritages et esperance Collection Christus No. 87 Essais, Desclee de Brouwer, Bellarmin, Paris, 1998, translated and used with permission.

        In 635 monks of Syrian origin, but residing in Persian territory, arrived at the Western Door of Chang¡¦an, the capital of the Chinese Empire, and the city now called Xi¡¦an. They were accompanying Persian merchants. As soon as the emperor learned of the arrival of these merchants, he sent one of his ministers to welcome them and bring them to the Imperial Palace. The emperor, the second of the Tang Dynasty, was very happy to meet these merchants, because Persia at the time was the commercial intermediary between China and the Near East.

        When the monks told the emperor that they themselves were not merchants, but monks who had come to make known the Religion of Light, that had many followers in Persia, the emperor asked them to deposit their religious books at the Imperial Library to have them translated. He himself would read them in his own apartments, and would permit the propagation of this religion if he deemed it good. We know that the emperor was satisfied with the contents of the new religion through the Stele of Xi¡¦an erected in 781.

        In 638, the emperor issued an edict authorizing the propagation of the "Religion of Light" (Jingjiao) throughout the Empire and paid for the construction of the first monastery of the Da Qin religion with State revenues.

        These monks were Syro-Orientals, sent to China by Iso¡¦yahb, the Patriarch of Gdala in the Mossoul region (628-646). This patriarch was a theologian who has left us a Christological Letter. We have reason to think that he sent a group of monks to China capable of entering into dialogue with Buddhists and Taoists, as well as with the Manicheans and the Zoroastrians from Persia who already resided in the capital of the Empire.

        At that time, Chang¡¦an was a melting pot and a center of encounter for Zoroastrians, Manicheans, and Christians from Persia and Buddhist monks from India and Japan. In the capital of the Empire, foreigners found Buddhists and Taoists eager to dialogue. It is among these people that the Syro-Oriental monks found people to translate into Chinese the works they had brought with them. When the Syrian monks arrived in Chang¡¦an, the famous Buddhist monk Xuanzang (600-664), who had left China in 629 to go to India "in search of the Law," had not yet returned. He returned in 645, with many Sanskrit texts, a large number that he himself translated. During the second half of the 7th century, one of the grand masters of Pure Land Buddhism lived very near the monastery of the Religion of the Da Qin. Han Yu (726-824), the famous Confucian scholar, was still only a child when the monks arrived in Chang¡¦an. Han Yu would later violently attack Buddhism and work for the renewal of Confucianism as interpreted by Mencius (371-289 B.C.).

        When Matteo Ricci arrived in China at the end of the 16th century, Confucianism was the leader in the domain of thought. This explains his attitude toward Taoism and Buddhism. There was no question of dialogue with these two currents of Chinese thought.

Jesus-Messiah

        The Syrian monks¡¦ most ancient text in our possession today is very probably The Book of Jesus-Messiah. From all appearances it was originally composed from the Syriac documents to help the emperor to understand the new religion that the Persian monks desired to propagate in China. Since the emperor¡¦s edict permitted the diffusion of this religion beginning in 638, it can be said that this little treatise was composed in the years 635-638.

        This little treatise is not entitled "The Book of Jesus Christ," since the Chinese transcription of the name "Messiah" is never taken from the Greek translation Khristos, but always from the Aramaic or Syriac form of Meshiha (usually transcribed in Chinese as Mishihe). The synoptic evangelists all use the Greek translation that has given us our "Christ." The form Messiah, a Greco transcription of the Hebrew, "Machiah¡¦or of the Aramaic, appears only in the Gospel of John and then only twice. This would lead us to believe that the Syro-Orientals had St. John in Aramaic or in Syriac, before the diffusion of this Gospel in Greek around the year 90 CE. Moreover, this is what the monks of Chang¡¦an, by putting John before the other three evangelists (G. 2; J. 12), seem to indicate in their litanies.

        This Messiah is Jesus, known to the Syro-Orientals by the dialectical forms of his name: Ishu and Ishoh. The choice of characters for the name of Jesus in the Book of Jesus-Messiah has been very unfortunate because the character chosen to represent the sound "shu" means "rat." A Chinese who did not realize that this was nothing but a phonetic transcription must have wondered how these strangers could venerate a "wild rat." (Yishu¡Vthe literal translation of the phonetic alliteration). Fortunately, this transcription was quickly abandoned.

        The Chinese text of the Book of Jesus-Messiah was composed with the help of a Buddhist. The problem of God immediately surfaced since this idea is foreign to the Buddhist tradition. After an exchange which certainly could not have been easy, the Buddhist proposed an honorific Buddhist term: Tianzun, the "Heaven Honored One" or "the Celestial Honored One" giving to the word "Tian" the highest possible meaning of supreme power (B. 1, etc.). The title of Shizun, which means the "World Honored One", was conferred on the Messiah (E. 1, etc.). The title, which is applied to Buddha, could also be suitable for the Messiah. The translator, by an act, which must have been totally spontaneous, four times called the Messiah "Fo" which means Buddha (B. 20, 25, 87, 97).

        The "Heaven Honored One," seeing that people were going astray completely, sent the Holy Spirit, the "cool Wind" (liangfeng,) also called the "Pure Breeze" (jingfeng), to a young girl named Moyan, that is, Mary. The "cool Wind" penetrated into the womb of the young girl who became pregnant. One of the texts says that the "cool Wind," the Holy Spirit, is the father of Jesus (B. 150, 156).

        After the conception, Moyan gave birth to a son who was given the name of Yishu. When Jesus-Messiah was born, everyone observed signs in the heavens. A star as big as a chariot wheel shone above the place where the Messiah was born, in Jerusalem, the country of Ephraim (B. 149, 163). Other later texts mention that the Wise Men who went to venerate the Messiah came from Persia (A. 7).

        At the age of five, the Messiah began to speak. This must be an allusion to the fact that there were biblical schools in Israel where from the age of five, children learned to write, and to memorize the holy books (B. 164). At the age of 12, the Messiah went to John to be baptized and he became John¡¦s disciple. There is nothing about these things in the canonical Gospels. But Jesus could have been a disciple of John without actually living with him, as was the case with John the Evangelist, Andrew and others who while being fishermen on the Lake of Galilee were disciples of the Baptist. What makes this hypothesis possible is that when at the age of 30, Jesus came to John for baptism; John declined saying that Jesus should baptize him. John would not have reacted that way had he not known Jesus intimately (B. 166-168). He knew Jesus without really knowing who he was.

        Once baptized, Jesus came out of the water. The "cool Wind" came down upon him under the form of a dove and a voice from heaven said, "The Messiah is my Son. Everyone must do what the Messiah commands, obeying his commandment to do good"(B. 178-181).

        Thus Jesus began his ministry at the age of 12, and continued until he was nearly 33 (B. 177). He chose 12 disciples close to him and spent his time healing the sick and exorcising devils. Those afflicted with maladies of all kinds came to touch his Kachaya and they were healed (B. 178-181).

        But the doctors of the Sacred law, "wine bibbers and eaters of meat" who served their false gods, complained about the Messiah, and sought any occasion to destroy him. There were also a large number of people who believed in his teachings. His enemies plotted against him and accused him before the Great King Pilate to whom they said, "The Messiah must be given the death penalty, O Great King. Get rid of him immediately!" Pilate took the matter into his own hands, but he found no reason for condemnation and said to his accusers, "I cannot put him to death." Pilate washed his hands in front of them and turned Jesus over to them. Thus the Messiah gave his body over to perverse men to be sacrificed for the benefit of all humanity, without exception (B. 182-200).

        For the chronological account of the passion, the text follows the Johannine tradition, but as for the hour of the crucifixion, the Chinese interpreter seems to have gotten mixed up in calculating the hours: "They attached the Messiah to the wood at the fifth hour of the sixth day of fast. They attached him to the cross at dawn, but when the sun began to set, great darkness came over all the land. The earth trembled, mountains split asunder, all the doors of the tombs in the world opened up and some of the dead came back to life" (B. 201-204).

        Unfortunately the manuscript is incomplete. It stops in the middle of a phrase two verses later. There is every reason to believe that this Book of Jesus Messiah was composed between 635 and 638, the date that the emperor promulgated his edict authorizing the propagation of the new religion from Persia. We have another text dated from 641 entitled, Discourse of the World Honored One on Almsgiving. This treatise gives more details on the life of the Messiah, such as are found in the canonical Gospels.

        Occasionally we find an interesting entry. Thus after his resurrection, "He stayed with them during 14 days plus one month. During this time there was not one single day that he did not appear to his friends in some obscure places" (E. 109).

        In the same treatise, we find a significant remark concerning the apparitions after the resurrection. "The women went to the tomb early in the morning but an angel said to them, "The Messiah has risen; he is no longer here." The women went where the disciples were assembled to report what they had heard. Just as the first woman had brought the bad account to Adam, who was the origin of sin, in the same way, it was the women who, having gone to the tomb brought back the news of the resurrection (E. 139-141).

        The Messiah sent his disciples to preach his doctrine to every nation. The Holy Spirit, the "Pure Breeze" will be with them. The Ascension is barely mentioned, but it does say, "The heavens opened and the Messiah appeared in the transparency of heaven. High in the heavens there was the figure of a man seated in the "Great and merciful Wind." It was in this way that the great sanctification of the world was accomplished" (E. 149-151).

Dialogue and expression of the Christian mystery

        The monks of the Church of the East who arrived in Chang¡¦an in 635 could not have known much Chinese and they probably had only a very vague idea of Buddhism and Taoism. Moreover, those who were helping them certainly had no idea whatsoever of the new religion. For that reason, the first attempts at translation must have been very difficult. The text of the Stele of Xi¡¦an, composed 150 years later, in 781, on the other hand, shows a very great mastery of the three religions involved in the dialogue.

        Most of the texts that we have insist on the uniqueness of God. God, therefore, is often designated by the Taoist term, Yishen, the unique Spirit (C. 37, etc.; E. 18, 23, 52). In some other texts, God is simply called "the One" (E. 11, 21, 22, etc.). Within the Taoist perspective, God is always "the Absolute Void" (xukong) (C. 58, etc.). In the Buddhist perspective, God is ordinarily called the "the Honored One of Heaven," Tianzun, but sometimes God is simply called "the Honored One," Zun (E. 90-92).

        The first texts that we possess simply tell the story of the Messiah, but there came a day, when the Christian message had to be presented in categories and perspectives that were truly Chinese. This is what the text of the Stele of Xi¡¦an composed in 781, around 150 years after the arrival of the first Syro-Oriental monk in 635, makes us understand.

        The inscription on the stele reveals a real theological synthesis that draws from the three traditions: Christianity, Taoism and Buddhism. The term used for the Trinity is Sanyi, a Taoist term that signifies "Three-One." But to indicate that it was the Christian concept, the author added the character, "Wo" that means "our." In that way the Taoist term took on a Christian meaning, "Our Three-One" (A. 3).

        To explain the incarnation of one of these "Three-One," the term used is taken from Buddhism, "fenshen." When a spiritual being wishes to manifest himself in the world, he "separates" to appear under a visible form. This notion is somewhat analogous to the conception of the metamorphosis in the ancient Greek religion (A. 7). The Messiah, therefore, appears on the earth by hiding his divinity. The point of view here is different from that of Saint Paul for whom the Word "emptied himself" of his prerogatives.

        The term most frequently used to express the relationship between the Messiah, the divine incarnate person, and God, is "Tong." It is full of meaning and means: to communicate, to be in perfect communion with. The Messiah, therefore, is the one who is in perfect communication or in communion with God, the Holy One equal to God (I. 15-16). One hymn is completely consecrated to "the return to his true nature" of the One who is in perfect communion with the Great Saint (J. title). We will find the same expression again in the Mysterious Refrains of Patriarch Lu (Ref. 1,3). The Messiah is truly God. He is always there where God is (C. 74). In one of the texts, the Messiah is called "zun¡¦er," the Son of the Honored One (E. 72). These texts reveal how, in their own vocabulary and from their own perspectives, the Chinese translators tried to explain who the Messiah was. The Messiah is seen under two aspects: the first just presented above is his relation to God; the second is his relation to humanity.

        In his relation to humanity, the Messiah is the Savior. By sacrificing his own life, he procured the salvation of the entire world. In his mission, he acted in perfect conformity with what the Father had decided (E. 62). In giving him the title of the World Honored One, the translators have placed him on the same plane as Buddha by conferring a cosmic character on his vocation (E. 1).

        The Messiah bore the sins of all of humanity (D. 133-139). The salvation he offers is for all (E. 102-105). It is even said that salvation is without any condition since no human act can merit it (E. 105). This statement forms the basis for the theology expressed in the texts that we possess. This makes us understand that the Syro-Oriental monks of Xi¡¦an were faithful to the theology of the great spiritual Syrians such as Isaac of Ninive.

        The salvation brought by the Messiah is seen as a profound transformation, which is a return to the authenticity of the primordial nature. This is the theme of the hymn whose title is, Hymn of Praise of the Religion of Light of the Da Qin on the return to his true nature of the One who is in perfect communion with the Great Saint. Human beings had lost their true nature (J. 5). Through his infinite mercy and the power of his wisdom, the Messiah has brought humanity back to the Great Law of the primordial nature (J. 9).

        In reading the texts that we have, we cannot help but be aware of the religious milieu in which these texts were painstakingly developed. Almost all of the terms used to describe the Christian message are borrowed from Taoism or Buddhism. What is said about the return to the primordial nature reminds us that at this epoch, in another region in China, Huimeng (638-713) was elaborating the doctrine of the Chan School of Buddhism that was to become Japanese Zen. For Huimeng, the perception must be essentially oriented towards the original nature. Therefore, in the Messiah and through him, humanity recovers this nature, which was already one of the essential convictions of Syro-Oriental theology.

The Messiah, the Master of the Victorious Law

        There is a treatise from the 8th century entitled, The Treatise on the Aspiration to the Mystery of Peace and Joy. This mysterious peace and joy is nothing other than eternal happiness presented in the Buddhist perspective of the Pure Land School. In this school, in fact, Paradise for Buddha Amida is the Kingdom of Peace and Joy (H. 1). We can easily surmise that the monks who wrote this treatise had met with Shandao, one of the great masters of the Pure Land School that we mentioned above.

        The treatise is presented like a Buddhist sutra. The disciples are seated in a semi-circle before the Messiah. Simon Peter, the monk, gets up, with his arms folded on his chest, asks the Messiah how to attain the mysterious domain of peace and joy.

        The Messiah begins a long discourse. "Monk Simon, know that I am in all the heavens, and in all the corners of the earth. I walk with the spirits and with human beings. I am among human beings whether they are of one race or of all races, whether they are intelligent or not. I help and sustain all who are virtuous" (H. 17-18). As for those who must be chastised for their evil deeds, I will assist them." Then there are a few enigmatic characters, which seem to mean, "We have never heard anything like that." This is a new message. Finally, this is the message of the Religion of Light (H. 19, 24).

        The Messiah then proposes his method for arriving at the place of peace and joy. This is a progressive method that comprises ten stages of contemplation followed by four stages of the "mysterious Law." The ten stages of contemplation aim to open the path by clearing it (H. 60-82). These stages take the human condition into consideration, which is passing and inconsistent. These ten stages must lead to a total detachment from passions and from virtues that are the fruit of personal effort. Here and there, we seem to be hearing John of the Cross.

        After having gone through the 10 stages of contemplation, we enter into the practice of the "four stages of the Mysterious Law": no desire, no action, no virtue that could arouse pride and finally no witness, since absolute fidelity is total emptiness about which we can say nothing (H. 83-93).

        This is how the Messiah, the great King of the Victorious Law, introduces the message of the "Religion of Light." These laws will free human beings from all over doctrines; they are tender and merciful for all. Accomplishing the great act of compassion, peacefully and in silence, human beings will be freed from desire without limit. Thus they will be able to attain to the "Victorious Law."

        The Messiah explains that the domain of peace and joy is like a heaven on the top of a high mountain. No human being can arrive at the summit by his/her own strength; this is why the Messiah makes himself the ladder (to climb the rocky steep slopes) and the staircase (cut in the rock) (H. 59).

        The Messianic teaching is "progressive" or "gradual" like the one proposed by the School of the North of the Chan tradition and not "abrupt" like the one proposed by the School of the South (H. 60).

        Simon often expresses his admiration and his gratitude, but he admits that he does not understand all that the Messiah says. Great in Truth and Honorable Supreme One! Great in Truth and Honorable Supreme One! You have very clearly explained the profound and mysterious victorious way. Its depth is beyond our understanding. As for myself, I do not completely understand your teaching. Please instruct us and continue to teach us" (H.35).

        The Messiah answers this plea many times, but finally he ends his discourse with these words: "It is better for you not to keep asking, for my teaching is like a well whose waters never run dry. If you have just experienced healing (by drinking the water) you must not drink too much, because this could make you ill again. Thus, at the beginning, your good nature can be aroused, but to hear too much could awaken some doubts in you. This is why it is better for me not to say any more about it" (H. 104).

        "In hearing these words, the crowd was filled with happiness and joy. Having greeted the Messiah very respectfully, all leave and act according to the orders of the Lord" (H. 105).

The inscription of the stele of Xi¡¦an

        The Stele of Xi¡¦an was erected in 781. A Syrian monk, named Adam, whose Chinese name was Jingjing, composed the text, which is mostly historical. But it contains two short passages that we can consider as the essence of the Christian faith, a faith that we cannot call Nestorian. These two passages present the Messiah, his mission and universal salvation.

        "Aloha, the Three-One, the mysterious unbegotten person, seeing that confused humanity was incapable of finding the road to return home, decided to intervene" (A. 3, 4). Therefore, the Three-One was divided (fenshen). The bright and honored Messiah, hiding his true majesty, appeared among human beings. The angels announced the Good News. A virgin in the land of Da Qin gave birth to the Saint. A bright star announced the holy event. The Persians saw the star¡¦s splendor and came to bring their gifts" (A. 7).

        Fulfilling the ancient Law as the 24 sages have expressed it, the Messiah taught how to govern families and States according to his plans. He proclaimed the new doctrine of the "Pure Breeze" (the Holy Spirit) expressed without words that conforms to the practice of virtues in the true faith. Giving as the norm the eight cardinal virtues, he purified human nature from its defilement and re-established it in truth. He opened the door of the three principles, gave back life and abolished death. Withholding the brilliant sun, he swept away the domain of darkness. All the evil designs of the devil were reduced to nothing and abolished. He took up the oars of the vessel of mercy and ascended to the Palace of Light. From then on, all the beings endowed with reason were led through the gulf (of the ocean of sorrows). The work of his omnipotence thus accomplished, he returned in broad daylight to the place he formerly had (in the heavens) (A.8).

        The Messiah¡¦s ascension is not presented as it is in the Acts of the Apostles, but according to the Buddhist tradition. Buddha is the ferryman who ferries human beings from the earthly riverbank of the ocean of sorrows to nirvana on the other shore. Within the Christian conception, the vessel or the raft of mercy comes from heaven, for it is God who sends it in answer to the prayer in the Hymn of Praise to the Three Majesties of the Religion of Light to obtain salvation: "Great master, we beg you to listen to everyone¡¦s supplication. Send the raft of salvation from above that we may not be tossed about in the river of fire" (F. 8). The raft is the Messiah in person and he is also the rower.

        The Incarnation is defined as a "fenshen". We can take this term to mean: the person who is "detached" for the sake of a mission. The Messiah is separated from his Father, according to the theology expressed by John in speaking of the words of the disciples following the Last Supper: "This time, we do believe that you have come from God" (Jn 16, 31).

        The Messiah comes from God and separates himself in order to enter into the world of generations of human history (A. 7). He enters into human history to respond to a need: the need is for a Redeemer who assumes the human condition to save all humans, by making them return to the purity of their primordial nature.

        For this the Messiah makes himself "a person who responds to a need, to a situation," "yingshen" which can be translated literally by "body of correspondence" or "body of response." Fenshen corresponds to the relationship to God. Yingshen corresponds to the relation to humanity. The two terms are correlative (G.1 yingshen;) (E.1 fenshen). In all this the spirit is the "witness" (G.1). This notion of witness is as basic in Buddhism as it is in Christianity. In the Book of Praise the Holy Spirit is called "Breath of Kudsha," which in Syriac means the "Holy Spirit" (G. 1).

        The Book of Praise gives us the first Chinese representation of the mystery of the Trinity with the names of the three persons in Syriac: Aloha, Meshiha, Ruah de-Kudsha.

        In the presentation of the Trinity, the term designating the persons is "shen" which on the one hand means the "body," and on the other the "self," the person as in the current expression "xiushen" which means to work at one¡¦s perfection. The term "shen," which is very familiar to the Chinese, resounds more profoundly in their heart than "wei" now used to designate the Persons of the Trinity. The Father is the marvelous Person, the Son is the Person who responds to a situation, and the Holy Spirit is the Person who witnesses to the divine mystery.

        To realize his Incarnation, the Messiah had to detach himself from his origins and hide them from human beings. But as a consequence, as a human being, he had to retrace the journey that would lead him to the total consciousness of what he was before coming from the bosom of the Father. Like all human beings he had to return to his primordial nature, which can be understood as a return to his home or to the place of his rest (xiufu) (A. 6).

        The mystery of the Redemption is expressed in Christian terms, which reflects the theology of John and Paul. The Messiah triumphed over all the ruses of the devil and appeared as a brilliant sun that dispelled all darkness. By his own death he abolished death. He ascended to the Palace of Light, himself rowing the oars of the vessel of mercy. Thus, "all beings endowed with reason were led through the ocean of sorrows." It is highly probable that the expression "beings endowed with reason" corresponds to the term logicoi that we find in Evagre the Pontic and other Syro-Oriental theologians. For Evagre, the demons were also logicoi. It seems that in the Syro-Oriental tradition, they paid little attention to the condemnation of the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553 of the doctrine of apostasy advocated by Origen. This leads us to conclude that the supposed "Nestorian" stele was not Nestorian at all, but rather Origenian in its doctrine of universal salvation.

        Following the story of the Christian mission in China and the praise of the emperors, the inscription on the stele gives a second resume of Christian doctrine.

        "Having recounted the historical events, we now engrave the eulogy on this great monument in poetic form:

True Lord, without beginning

Profound, firm and unchanging

He created the universe and transformed it.

He made the earth to come forth and established the heavens.

The detached Person entered into the cycle of generations,

to save all without exception.

The sun rose and the darkness disappeared.

All bear witness to the True Mystery" (A. 31).

        These two doctrinal passages on the stele are a synthesis of the message brought to China by the Syro-Oriental monks and interpreted by Taoists and Buddhists.

The Testimony of Patriarch Lu, the Great Immortal

        The Chinese venerate mysterious personages who have become immortals. There are eight of them and the most famous among them is Patriarch Lu, also known as Lu Dongbin. His real name is Lu Yan. As the founder or inspirer of the Taoists Schools, he is also know under the name of Chunyang, "Pure Yang," the yang being the masculine complementary principle of the feminine yin. There have been so many legends about him that we sometimes wonder if he ever existed. According to historians, this immortal is supposed to have lived during the second half of the 8th century. He lived at about one quarter of an hour¡¦s distance from the monastery of Da Qin. While helping the monks to translate their texts, he took a liking for the theology of his Christian friends and composed a hymn, which is included in his Complete Works published for the first time in 1744 and reprinted recently in Taipei.

        This hymn entitled Mysterious Refrains is divided into four sections. Each section has four strophes. The first section is clearly Trinitarian. The first strophe is addressed to the Father, "Prostrate, O Lord of Heaven, we implore you. The peace of origins is spreading everywhere." In this first strophe, God is designated by the term "Tianzhu," the Lord of Heaven. Matteo Ricci and his companions adopted this same term 800 years later. It is highly probable, however, that neither Ricci nor his companions were aware that they were not the first to use this term to designate the God of the Christians.

        The second and the third strophes are addressed to the Word, first in his relation to God and then in relation to humanity. The Messiah is the one who is in "total communication with the Great God." The next strophe presents the Messiah as the one who, "at all times and in all places, is able to save all living beings without exception." The fourth strophe is addressed to the Holy Spirit who is presented as "Wisdom that reveals the true religion and forever preserves the primordial purity of men and women."

        This first part of the Mysterious Refrains is definitely Trinitarian. It imitates two Christian Chinese hymns that we possess. Each strophe of the Refrains ends with an invocation, which is very probably a phonetic transcription of the Sanskrit, because the magic formulas had to be in Sanskrit to be efficacious. But what is very strange is that these magic formulas end with an invocation to the Messiah, "Ma-sha-he," transcribed from the Syriac "Mechiha," and to Jesus called "Ishoh." We even find the formula: "la-pan-yi-sha-he" that can only be a transcription of "rabban Ishoh," "Rabbi Jesus."

        It is difficult to judge how deeply Christian thought touched Patriarch Lu. But we have no reason to think that he composed this hymn as nothing more than a simple literary exercise. One of his biographies presents him in words that strangely recall the story of Christ. "He changed water into wine, gave the blind back their sight, healed the lame, fed several monks with a handful of flour."

        The case of Patriarch Lu makes us ask the question about the penetration of Christian thought in the Chinese world. Lu Yan could not have been the only one in contact with Christian thought. The milieu that the Christian monks encountered was very different from the one in which Matteo Ricci would live 800 years later. Ricci¡¦s first experience with Buddhism ended in failure and he deliberately moved on to the Confucian milieu. Although during the 7th and 8th centuries Christian thought was not widely diffused, we have an idea that it influenced the faithful of other religions, as was the case with Patriarch Lu. We know that the author of the inscription on the stele helped a Buddhist monk who had come from India to translate Sanskrit texts into Chinese. Why then would Christian thought not have influenced Chinese Buddhist monks such as Shandao, or the monks who had come from Japan to deepen their knowledge of the Law that the Chinese had gone to get in India?

        The fact that Christianity practically disappeared from China after the expulsion of the monks in 845 leads us to think that Christian implantation was monastic without having had much diffusion among the people. This first evangelization in China during the 7th and 8th centuries remains nonetheless an important stage in the presentation of the Christian message in China, and for its interpretation in Buddhist and Taoist perspectives. Although the failure is due to historical circumstances, the texts that we possess still invite us to reflect anew on the inter-religious dimension even in the presentation of the Christian message.


 

 

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