Lost Jesus Sutras Reveal Ancient Chinese Christianity

November 12, 2012 by  
Filed under Meditation, Spirituality

It’s an amazing story, one only now being told. More than 1,300 years ago, a Persian Christian monk named Aleben traveled 3,000 miles along the ancient caravan route known as the Silk Road all the way to China, carrying precious copies of the New Testament writings (probably in Syriac). Aleben and his fellow Christian monks stopped in the Chinese city of Chang-au (Xian), where, under the protection of the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong, he founded a CHristian monastery and began the arduous task of translating the Christian texts into Chinese. It was the year A.D. 635. When the Italian explorer Marco Polo arrived in China nearly 600 years later, he was astonished to discover that a tiny Christian community had existed there for centuries.

We know about this amazing Christian evangelist and his genial Chinese hosts because in 1623 graver diggers working outside of Xian dug up a stele weighing two tons and carved with 2,000 Chinese characters. Now known as the Monument Stele and residing in a museum in Xian, It was created in A.D. 781 and tells the tale Aleben and what the Chinese writers called “the Luminous Religion” because it taught of light. Here is what the Stele proclaimed:

The Emperor Taizong was a champion of culture. He created prosperity and encouraged illustrious sages to bestow their wisdom on the people. There was a saint of great virtue named Aleben, who came from the Qin Empire carrying the true scriptures. He had read the azure clouds and divined that he should journey to the East. Along the way, Aleben avoided danger and calamity by observing the rhythm of the wind.

In the ninth year of the Zhenguan reign [A.D. 635], Aleben reaching Chang-an [Zian]. The Emperor sent his minister, Duke Xuanling, together with a contingent of the palace guard, to the western outskirts to accompany Aleben to the palace.

The translation work on his scriptures took place in the Imperial Library and the Emperor studied them in his Private Chambers. After the Emperor became familiar with the True Teachings, he issued a decree and ordered that it be propagated…

… the Emperor issued a proclamation, saying:

“We have studied these scriptures and found them otherworldly, profound and full of mystery.

We found their words lucid and direct.

We have contemplated the birth and growth of the tradition from which these teachings sprang.

These teachings will save all creatures and benefit mankind, and it is on ly proper that they be practiced throughout the world.”

Following the Emperor’s orders, the Greater Qin Monastery was built in the I-ning section of the Capital. Twenty-one ordained monks of the Luminous Religion were allowed to live there…

The Emperor Gaozong [A.D. 650-683] reverently continued the tradition of his ancestor and enhanced the Luminous Religion by building temples in every province. He bestowed honors upon Aleben, declarin ghim the Great Dharma Lord of the Empire. The Luminous Religion spread throughout all ten provinces, the Empire prospered and peace prevailed. Temples were built in 100 cities and countless families received the blessings of the Luminous Religion.

Christianity flourished in China for at least two hundred years. But then, around A.D. 850, Chinese leaders began a purge of foreign religions, including Buddhism. Buddhist temples were destroyed and, according to one source, more than 3,000 monks of the “Luminious Religion” were ordered to return to lay life.

For more than 1,300 years, scholars and missionaries have searched for the lost scriptures that Aleben translated into Chinese — and for his monastery. A breakthrough finally occurred in the late 1880s when a lonely Taoist monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered 50,000 lost Chinese manuscripts hidden away in more than 500 caves in Dunhuang. Amazingly enough, it wasn’t until about a decade ago, in 1998, that the full story was told. The Dunhuang manuscripts are sort of the Dead Sea Scrolls of ancient China, a cache of long-buried treasures that reveal a tremendous amount about life in ancient China — including the strange story of how the “Luminous Religion” took root there and blended with Taoist and Confucian elements to create a uniquely Chinese form of Christianity. The discovery of these ancient Chinese texts by western scholars — and their dissemination to museums in France and Britain — along with the many decades it took to get them translated and published — very much resembles the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Of the 50,000 manuscripts discovered at Dunhuang, only eight comprise what are now known as the Jesus Sutras. Nevertheless, they clearly show Christian influence. They paraphrase passages from the New Testament and thus provide direct evidence that the ancient Chinese writers of these texts clearly knew the Gospel accounts:

“Do not pile up treasures on the ground where they will rot or be stolen. Treasures must be stored in Heaven where they will not decay or rot.”

“Always tell the truth. Do not give pearls to swine; they will trample and destroy them. You will only be blamed by them for your actions and incur their anger. Why don’t you realize this yourself.”

“Knock on the door and it will be opened for you. Whatever you seek, you will obtain from the One Spirit. Know on the door and it will be opened for you.”

“Look at the birds in the air. They don’t plant or harvest, they have no barns or cellars. In the wilderness the One Spirit provided for the people and will also provide for you. You are more important than the birds and should not worry.”

The Jesus Sutra texts clearly are attempting to translate Christian ideas and ideals into an idiom that the Chinese people — steeped in Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian concepts — can understand. Thus, the Jesus Sutras speak of the “Higher Dharma” that leads to Peace and Joy. “It is the Sutras of the Luminous Religion that enable us to cross the sea of birth and death to the other shore, a land fragrant with the treasured aroma of Peace and Joy,” the Sutras proclaim. “The Sutras are like a great fire burning upon a high mountain. The light from that fire shines upon all.”

Here is how the Jesus Sutras relate the story of Jesus:

The Lord of Heaven sent the Cool Wind to a girl named Mo Yen. It entered her womb and at the moment she conceived. The Lord of Heaven did this to show that conception could take place without a husband. He knew there was no man near her and that people who saw it would say, “How great is the power of the Lord of Heaven.”…

… Mo Yen became pregnant and gave birth to a son named Jesus, whose father is the Cool Wind.

… When Jesus Messiah was born, the world saw clear signs in heaven and earth. A new star that could be seen everywhere appeared in heaven above. The star was as big as a cart wheel and shown brightly. At about that time, the One was born in the country of Ephrath in the city of Jerusalem. He was born the Messiah and after five years he began to preach the dharma.

… From the time the Messiah was 12 until he was 32 years old, he sought out people with bad karma and directed them to turn around and create good karma by following a wholesome path. After the Messiah had gathered 12 disciples, he concerned himself with the suffering of others. Those who had died were made to live. The blind were made to see. The deformed were healed and the sick were cured.

… For the sake of all living beings and to show us that a human life is as frail as a candle flame, the Messiah gave his body to these people of unwholesome karma. For the sake of the living in this world, he gave up his life.

… After the Messiah had accepted death, his enemies seized the Messiah and took him to a secluded spot, washed his hair and climbed to “the place of skulls,” which was called golgotha. They bound him to a pole and placed two highway robbers to the right and left of him. They bound the Messiah to the pole at the time of the fifth watch of the sixth day of fasting. They bound him at dawn and when the sun set in the west the sky became black in all four directions, the earth quaked and the hills trembled. tombs all over the world opened and the dead came to life. What person can see such a thing and not have faith in the teaching of the scriptures? To give one’s life like the Messiah is a mark of great faith.

Fascinating stuff, no? To see this early form of Christianity — delivered by means of a Nestorian monk in the 6th century — through the eyes of the poetic, Taoist-influenced Chinese translators and scribes is to go back in time. It is yet another reminder of the universality of the Gospel message, how it transcends all culture and language and philosophical concepts. Christian yogis, above all, who seek wisdom from the East as well as from our own traditions, should appreciate this.

As the Apostle Peter tells the righteous Roman centurian Cornelius, following his vision: “I see clearly now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him (Acts 10: 34-5).” We Christians who seek wisdom from the East.

If you’re interested in this topic, you can discover more in The Lost Sutras of Jesus: Unlocking the Ancient Wisdom of the Xian Monks, edited by Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore (Berkeley: Seastone, 2003). A much more scholarly work, and without the frequently anti-Christian tone of Riegert and Moore, is Martin Palmer’s The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity (Wellspring/Ballantine, 2001).


Yogic Mudras in Christian Iconography

November 10, 2012 by  
Filed under Christian iconography, Spirituality

For Greeks and many Christians, Lent is a time for restraint, reverence, and reflection. In the 40 days leading up to Easter, Greeks practice fasting as a means of physical cleansing that also aids in our mental preparation for the holiest day of the year, that of the resurrection of Christ. Many of our restraints are similar to the yamas (ethical restraints) of yoga, and during Lent—ahimsa (non-harming) and bramacharya (chastity), are especially important.

As a Greek Orthodox Christian, this is a time to be pure of heart, mind, and action. During Lent, I always find myself more attuned to my innermost thoughts—the regular fasting brings thoughts about my religion, my own beliefs, my actions, other religions, the afterlife, and related topics to the forefront. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about hand mudras, and while searching for images of mudras, discovered quite a bit about my own religion in the process. Since we are in the midst of Lent, I thought it a perfect time to point out, especially for those Christians who feel conflicted about the yoga/Hinduism connection, that Hinduism, mudras, and yoga aren’t as far from Christianity as one might think. Read more

Discover Christian Zen

November 1, 2012 by  
Filed under Christian Zen

Like a Christian who discovers that one of her grandparents was Jewish, I unexpectedly have found that I have a mixed religious identity. Only in my case my ancestry is not Jewish but Buddhist, and not by bodily but by spiritual DNA. If I had to say what my religion is, I might say Christian Zen. And that is not all—I have also found that I have some cousins out there.

I know the Christian side of my heritage well. I was raised a Roman Catholic Christian, and but for a half dozen years in my early adulthood have continued in the Christian tradition, studying the Bible, praying and engaging in other Christian practices. During that early hiatus, I explored other religions and took up the practice of meditation. Discovery of the contemplative tradition of Christianity (which utilizes meditation) led me back to my birth religion, but I continued to occasionally read about Buddhism or visit various Buddhist groups because of my interest in their experience of meditation.

Two years ago I was listening to a cassette tape of a teacher from the Zen tradition, when something changed inside of me. This change has had a powerful effect on my life since then, one of the minor effects being that I am now deeply convinced that there is truth in both Christianity and Buddhism; thus my mixed identity. That Zen teacher was Adyashanti, an American lay teacher from the lineage of Taizan Maezumi, the founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles.

In exploring further into this lineage, I have discovered interlinking roots with a number of other Christian Zen practitioners, including several Catholic priests and members of religious orders who have been approved as Zen teachers. This article traces that lineage and reveals those interconnections, and concludes with some thoughts about the meaning of all this for interreligious dialogue.

From the Buddha to Zen

“Zen” is a Japanese word that means meditation. It has become a shorthand phrase referring to elements of the Zen Buddhist religious tradition that modern Westerners have found attractive or intriguing. For example, a focus on meditation and the experience of enlightenment, the embrace of paradox, and a simple yet powerful style in arts such as painting and poetry.
Any Zen lineage must start with the Buddha himself, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in Northern India during the fifth century BCE.

According to the sutras (the Buddhist sacred writings), Siddhartha left home to become a spiritual seeker, trying many teachings and practices before he settled on his “middle way” of avoiding extremes.

He became known as the Buddha (Enlightened or Awakened One) after attaining supreme enlightenment during a night of meditation, and in his subsequent career as a spiritual teacher drew primarily on his own experience rather than adhering to any previous tradition. The Buddha left behind memories of his example and teachings, as well as the monastic way of life he had organized. The Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma migrated to China about 470 CE. and became the First Patriarch of Chan Buddhism.

“Chan” is a Chinese rendering of the Sanskrit word for meditation; the Chan tradition emphasized meditation and “direct pointing into the mind” over study of the sutras and philosophical discussion. It holds that its teaching lineage ran from the Buddha through his disciple Mahakasyapa directly down to Bodhidharma. A key figure later in Chan was Hui-neng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of Chan and one of its most revered figures. In the Platform Sutra Hui-neng is depicted as a poor illiterate who came to enlightenment and then spent thirty-seven years teaching from his experience. One of the major themes of the Platform Sutra is that knowledge of the scriptures without wisdom is another source of delusion. (Christians should take note!) Inherent “Buddha-nature” is source of wisdom, but it is obscured in most people because of attachment to thoughts, desires and other mental phenomena. By detaching yourself from such phenomena—not suppressing them as some taught—Buddha-nature reveals itself. (This teaching is similar to that of Eastern Orthodox Christians and Western Christian mystics, who see the human soul as being created in the image of God but needing purification to fully develop “the mind of Christ” within. The Chan tradition subsequently developed various schools, two of which are of particular importance.

The Lin-chi school developed a system utilizing kung-ans, paradoxical statements meant to trigger enlightenment.

In the late twelfth century Lin-chi was introduced to Japan, where it became known as Rinzai Zen (Zen is the Japanese form of the word Chan; koan the Japanese form of kung-an).

The Ts’ao-tung school of Chan emphasized zazen, sitting in silent meditation; this school was introduced to Japan in the thirteenth century, where it became known as Soto Zen. The aim of both these schools was to foster the experience of kensho (“insight into one’s True Self”) and the deepening of this insight into full enlightened living.

The Harada-Yasutani lineage

Lay practioners have been around since the beginning of Buddhism, and periodically there have been teachers who have worked to make monastic practices more accessible to lay people. However, the involvement of the laity in Japanese Buddhism changed dramatically in the Meiji period (1868-1912), during which the government was attacking the Buddhist clergy as corrupt at the same time that Western intellectual influences were spreading in Japan.

As a result, some Buddhist religious leaders attempted to modernize and reform Buddhism in order to meet these challenges and increase lay support. Although he received inka (certification as an heir within a teaching lineage) from a Rinzai master, he had studied with both Rinzai and Soto teachers and in his career as a Zen master sought to bring both traditions together.

Despite his reputation as a strict disciplinarian, his retreats attracted numerous monks from both lineages as well as Japanese and foreign laypeople.

Unlike many other Zen teachers, he believed kensho was within reach of anyone, layperson or monk, who was motivated enough in their practice. Although ordained as a priest, Yasutani married and worked as a school teacher for several years before obtaining a position at a small temple. Around that same time he met Harada, and a few years later attained kensho at one of Harada’s retreats. He received inka from Harada in 1943. Like Harada, Yasutani’s emphasis was on students experiencing kensho, and he was increasingly critical of the Zen establishment for allegedly letting ritual and intellectualizing get in the way of the attainment of awakening. He travelled widely and trained many foreigners, among them the later-to-be prominent American Zen teachers Philip Kapleau and Robert Aitken.

Despite his break with Soto, Yasutani gave inka to several students, among them Yamada Koun (1907-1989), a layperson who was to succeed him as the head of Sanbokyodan in 1970, and Taizan Maezumi (1931-1995), the founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. Christian Zen teachers Yamada Koun, like his teacher Yasutani, travelled widely, teaching and giving retreats.
Interest in Zen Buddhism among Westerners had spread throughout the twentieth century, fed by the migration of Zen teachers to the West and the influence of writers such as the famous Catholic monk, Thomas Merton.
Under Yamada the lay orientation of Sanbokyodan grew even stronger, and among his many foreign students were a number of Catholic priests and religious (both male and female).

Sanbokyodan training dispensed with most of the ceremonial aspects of monastic training, retaining primarily koan study and zazen practice, and presented attaining and then deepening kensho as the “true Zen” which could be practiced within any religion. Today, the majority of authorized foreign Sanbokyodan teachers are members of Catholic orders, and they lead affiliate Zen groups in the Philippines, Singapore, India, Europe, Australia, and Japan.
Taizan Maezumi was ordained a Soto priest at an early age, received Dharma transmission from his father in 1955, and was later approved to teach by Rinzai lay teacher Koryu Osaka as well as Yasutani.

He thus stood within three lineages, although his teaching style owed a great deal to Yasutani. He emigrated to Los Angeles in 1956 to serve at a Japanese- American Zen temple, and by 1967 formed the Zen Center of Los Angeles to serve the many non-Asian Americans he was teaching. Maezumi gave transmission to twelve successors, many of whom affiliate with the Soto headquarters in Japan. One of his Dharma heirs, Bernard Glassman (founder of the Zen Community of New York), gave Dharma transmission to the Catholic Jesuit priest Robert E. Kennedy in 1991.

(Maezumi also gave an American laywoman, Arvis Joen Justi, permission to teach, who in turn later gave permission to the American lay teacher Adyashanti, mentioned at the beginning of this essay. The proliferation of Christian Zen teachers and practitioners will inevitably continue as current teachers give approval to others. For example, the aforementioned Jesuit priest and Zen teacher Robert E. Kennedy has named five Dharma successors already.

Christian Zen and interreligious dialogue.

What do these developments mean for interreligious dialogue? For one thing, they demonstrate the difficulty of determining who is a “genuine” representative of a particular religious tradition.
Sanbokyodan teachers have been very active in Christian-Buddhist dialogue conferences and retreats around the world, and Sharf alleges that “sometimes one and the same foreign disciple of Yamada would find him or herself representing Christianity one day, and Buddhism the next!”15 As farcial as that sounds, there are now numerous people who can claim to be both ordained clergy and/or vowed religious within an established Christian tradition, and certified Zen teachers within a lineage going back to recognized Buddhist teachers.

Are they Christian, are they Buddhist, or are they yet something else? What are the criteria for a genuine representative of a religious tradition? Another question involves the aim of interreligious dialogue. Insofar as some participants already have or are creating blended religious identities, those who want to preserve separate and distinct identities for different religions will at some point find their aims diverging.

Discovering similarities between traditions can create a pull toward blending and merging them, while identifying differences challenges adherents to defend their tradition against such blending tendencies. Conflict within traditions between those in one camp or the other may very well be sharpened. Both of these issues are grounded in a more fundamental question raised by the modern encounter of different religions, and highlighted by Sanbokyodan’s activities, which is the relation between religious forms and religious experience. Do religious forms—institutions, texts, teachings, practices—have value in themselves, or are they only of importance insofar as they lead people to some type of religious experience? Do religious forms help distinguish true from false, or shallow from deep, religious experience; that is, do they have authority over religious experience? Or is religious experience the authority, giving licence for reformers to reshape and perhaps even jettison religious forms?

Conclusion

The questions raised by this examination of the development of Christian Zen are both extremely important and very difficult, so I would not presume to attempt a definitive answer to them, if such a thing is even possible. However, I cannot avoid having a position on them due to my own experience. As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I have had dual (or even multiple) religious influences on my own spiritual life.

The context of my experiences has made it impossible for me not to privilege experience over form, but it has also forced me to see the relation between them as more complex than that might imply. Shortly after I first began practicing meditation, during my ‘hiatus’ from Christianity, I had some “awakening” experiences which were difficult for me to interpret due to my standing outside of any particular religious tradition. I had learned meditation initially from a book about how to improve your eyesight, and subsequently took a weekend seminar that used guided imagery meditation but did not have any clear religious affiliation. Later on, after reading about and speaking with people of different traditions, I found that my experiences seemed to have common features with both the kensho experience in Zen Buddhism and the “born again” experience of evangelical Christians.

The experiences left me with an unshakable sense of there being a reality larger than my “self,” and in other circumstances might very well have made me either a committed Buddhist or a committed Christian depending on the context. As it turned out, I met a spiritual teacher not long after that who introduced me to the Christian contemplative tradition, and I came to accept the central Christian teachings about the identity and mission of Jesus Christ. But it still seemed to me that there was something valid in the experience of other religions such as Buddhism. If I had committed to the Christian tradition first and had the experiences afterwards, I might have seen the experiences as confirming the tradition, and been less open to other possible interpretations.

But even as I immersed myself within my home tradition of Christianity, I remained open to the idea of other religious traditions being important vehicles of religious experience. About twenty-five years later, still a practicing Christian, I was at a point of personal crisis related to a sense that my spiritual life had become stuck against some insurmountable barrier. That was the point at which hearing the Zen teacher Adyashanti caused a dramatic internal shift to what I can only describe as a new form of consciousness.


As a Christian I might interpret this change one way, but because it was seemingly instigated by a Zen teacher I could also interpret it another way. In short, it is impossible for me to accept either tradition as the religious form uniquely responsible for that experience. While these experiences have made it impossible for me to think of religious form as having ultimate authority over religious experience, they have also impressed upon me how complex the relation between the two is.

The earlier experience gave me a sense of having a superior vantage point from which to judge religious forms, but the later experience was more significant and I do not think it would have come to pass without both the subsequent years of shaping in a particular tradition and the stimulus of a teacher who also had been shaped by a tradition—although not the same tradition! In sum, religious forms serve both to provoke an initial religious experience, and to deepen it into a more mature stage of development.

On the one hand, if a religious form has come to impede religious experience, or if it is being given ultimate value apart from religious experience, reform is clearly needed. On the other hand, attempts to reshape a time-tested religious form based only on an initial religious experience are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Ironically, Sanbokyodan may prove to have served more for a revitalization of Christian spirituality, than for its intended reform of Buddhism.

The HeartAwake Center
www.heartawake.org

The Yoga of Time: 20 Ways to Find Time for Yoga, Meditation and Prayer

October 30, 2012 by  
Filed under Christian yoga

“The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure.” – Henry David Thoreau

Are there a hundred different things you wish you could do with your life someday — anything from exercising to meditation or yoga to writing that novel you always wished you could write to reading more to relaxing and watching the sunrise?

But perhaps you never have the time, like most people.

The truth is, we all have the same amount of time, and it’s finite and in great demand. But some of us have made the time for doing the things we love doing, and others have allowed the constant demands and pressures and responsibilities of life to dictate their days.

It’s time to move from the second group back into the first. Reclaim your time. Create the life you want and make the most of the free time you lay claim to.

It’s not hard, though it does take a little bit of effort and diligence.

Reclaiming that free time

Take my life, for example: there was a time, not too long ago, when my day was packed from morning to night, when I had meetings and long to-do lists and worked long hours and the rest of my time was filled up with social engagements and meetings for civic responsibilities. I had little time for my family, which ate me up, and little time to do the things I’ve always wanted to do. Read more

Review of Soul Surfer: “Best Faith-Based Movie Ever Made”

April 6, 2011 by  
Filed under Spirituality

From the Orlando Sentinel

“Soul Surfer” is the best faith-based film ever made, an uplifting, entertaining and wonderfully-acted account of surfer Bethany Hamilton’s life before and after a shark bit her arm off in the waters off her favorite Hawaiian beach.

It’s corny in all the right ways, from the voice over narration in which Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb of “Race to Witch Mountain”) explains how she was “born” to do this and the surfer’s credo that kept her going after that fateful day — “Life is an adventure, and sometimes you wipe out and land in the impact zone.”


Co-writer/director Sean McNamara, a veteran of many a TV show, TV movie and “Bring It On” sequel, recreates Hamilton’s seaside Hawaiian life, complete with surfing siblings and surfing parents. A coup; landing Oscar winner Helen Hunt to play the mom and the always athletic Dennis Quaid as the dad.

Bethany and her best friend Alana (Lorraine Nicholson) are rising starlets on the local surfing scene, friendly competitors with endorsements lined up. They’re like sisters, going to the same open air church, both members of the same youth group led by Sarah, winningly played by singer Carrie Underwood. Sarah sings in the pop-gospel group at church and tries to get the girls to think about their priorities, “Get a new perspective,” especially when it comes to volunteering on youth missions.

But the girls are all about time on the water, and that (with digital trickery polishing their surfing skills) is accompanied by foreshadowing. Arresting, faintly menacing underwater shots show how vulnerable one is while paddling out to sea on a surfboard.

And sure enough, 22 minutes into “Soul Surfer,” there’s a shark attack. In a moving, alarming and electric six minute long sequence, we see the bite, the quick reaction of those with Bethany (Kevin Sorbo is wonderfully credible as Alana’s save-the-day surfing dad), the nerve-wracking race to the hospital and the panic in her parents. Hunt, as a mom weeping and praying “Please don’t take her” as she races to the hospital, will make you cry.

Craig T. Nelson offers solid support as the doctor who treats Bethany and reassures the always-calm kid when she wakes up, “Those things you’re not going to be able to do? So small.”

In many ways, the movie turns “Lifetime Original Movie” as Bethany recovers. She’s a tough kid and is determined to get back in the water “as soon as my stitches come out,” and just as determined to compete again. Robb plays her as plucky, but no Pollyanna. Nicholson, as her friend, and Sonya Balmores Chung, as Bethany’s cutthroat surfing rival, are given wonderful shades of grey to play in their differing reactions to her injury.

To read the rest of this review, click here.

Christian Dead Sea Scrolls… or Known Forgeries?

April 6, 2011 by  
Filed under Spirituality

The Middle East in turmoil, newly discovered ancient texts carried across borders and offered for sale to the highest bidder: It reads like the Dead Sea Scrolls story. Only this is now and some people say these texts could be a Christian type of Dead Sea Scrolls if they are authentic. That’s a big if.

British media first reported on the discovery of 70 lead codices, metal plates barely bigger than a credit card, bound together with lead straps. Their text is in ancient Hebrew and Greek. They also contain Christian and Jewish symbols.


The codices are currently in the possession of an Israeli Bedouin who says they’ve been in his family for 100 years. However the reports also say that they were discovered a few years ago in a cave in a remote area of northwest Jordan. This is near the area where first century Christians fled when Jerusalem was attacked by the Romans.

The Jordanian government is trying to get them back. “They will really match, and perhaps be more significant than, the Dead Sea Scrolls,” the director of Jordan’s Department of Antiquities, Ziad al-Saad, told the BBC.

To which Larry Hurtado says, “Chill, take a breath.” Hurtado is Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh.

Hurtado says dangling such discoveries in front of the media, before making them available to scholars, is becoming a tired game. “I’m impatient with people who go to the press and claim that they have something of enormous scholarly value and do not provide the materials for independent scholarly analysis. Controlling access to information is not how we do business in scholarship.”

Other Bible scholars and archaeologists contacted by Christianity Today were equally skeptical. “Don’t get too excited until we know what we have,” said Darrell Bock, Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. Archaeologists pointed out that any ancient item discovered out of context faces huge hurdles before it can be authenticated and properly dated.

To read the rest of this article, click here.

Tibetan Singing Bowls Help People Embrace Lenten Goals

April 6, 2011 by  
Filed under Spirituality

During the period of Lent, Christians from many difDferent denominations focus intensely on their spiritual selves through a variety of devotions and disciplines.

From fasting to good works to prayer, Lent is a period for people to step back from the busyness of life and reflect on the religious or spiritual paths they are called on to undertake.

Knox United Church in downtown Calgary on Sunday is hosting a Tibetan Singing Bowls event which, through sound and light, helps people adopt a more meditative experience throughout this Lenten period.


This is the second time Knox has hosted John Akim Gosaw, says Rev. Drew Strickland.

“It was an overwhelming response last year,” he says.

Many people resonated with the meditative sound and light experience.

“We’re heading into the spring. Lent in the Christian traditions is about the lengthening of days,” adds Strickland. “There’s a lot of people who are moving in the meditative direction either doing meditation, mindful meditation or yoga of various types. John is someone who came to my attention, probably about five years ago, because . . . he has sound sessions for therapy.

“The sound of the Tibetan bowls historically and today touches people and touches deep areas of their unconsciousness and it tends to bring people into the state of real peace where they are decluttered. And their inner interior decluttering opens them for healing to take place in their lives.”

The Tibetan Singing Bowls with John Akim Gosaw takes place Sunday at 7: 30 p.m. at Knox United Church, 506 4th St. S.W. For more information and tickets contact www.knoxcentre.ca or 403-266-6450.

Strickland says the evening will move people into a reflective state of awareness. It’s an opportunity to go deeper in the understanding and practice of meditation and prayer.

According to the website promoting this event, Gosaw, at age 15, was initiated into the nada or sound. He discovered the Tibetan Singing Bowls after a near-death experience at age 25. “True healing and insight touched him from the sounds and vibration from these ancient instruments.”

Strickland says the Lenten time of the year is a time of preparation for the great celebration of Easter and traditionally that has included the spiritual practice of fasting.

To read the rest of this article, go here…

Has Yoga Strayed Too Far From Its Hindu Roots?

April 6, 2011 by  
Filed under Hatha Yoga, Spirituality

For centuries in India, yoga has been a practice rooted in the Hindu faith. Today, it is a massively popular fitness tradition in the United States, part of a wellness lifestyle for some 15 million Americans. And some Hindus are not happy with the way yoga is treated in the US. The Hindu American Foundation claims the tradition has strayed too far from its Hindu roots and has launched a campaign called ‘Take Back Yoga.’ In Tell Me More’s weekly “Faith Matters” conversation, guest host Farai Chideya puts the question, “who owns yoga?” to Sheetal Shah of the Hindu American Foundation, and Virginia Cowen, a yoga instructor and body trainer.


Now it’s time for “Faith Matters,” the part of the program when we talk about matters of spirituality.

Today, a practice that has its roots in India but has become part of a health and wellness lifestyle for some 15 million Americans: yoga. Yoga has been practiced as part of the Hindu faith for centuries. But in the U.S. and other Western countries, it has evolved.

(Soundbite of advertisements)

Unidentified Woman #1: We found a fantastic way to incorporate your workout and spending time with your little one: Mommy and Me Yoga. And we are here…

Unidentified Woman #2: We are choosing to combine yoga and kickboxing, bringing two opposites together. But really, they’re not that opposite at all.

Unidentified Woman #3: How to create fuller lips with face yoga? Get beautiful bee-stung lips with daily facial exercises that stimulate the production of collagen.

CHIDEYA: Now, one group says this has gone too far. The Hindu-American Foundation claims yoga in the United States has strayed too far from its roots in Hindu philosophy and religion. They’ve launched a campaign called Take Back Yoga, which asks Americans to appreciate yoga’s debt to Hinduism.

The issue has sparked a heated debate within the tranquil world of yoga, and we wanted to know more about it. So we’ve called on Sheetal Shah of the Hindu-American Foundation. She heads the Take Back Yoga campaign.

And we are also joined by Virginia Cowen. She’s an associate professor of health, physical education and dance at Queensborough Community College in New York. She’s also a board member of Yoga Alliance, a group that works to encourage a standard for yoga instruction. They’re both in our New York bureau. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Professor VIRGINIA COWEN (Board Member, Yoga Alliance; Queensborough Community College): Thank you.

Ms. SHEETAL SHAH (Director of Development, Hindu-American Foundation): Happy to be here.

CHIDEYA: So Sheetal, let me begin with you. When you talk about this campaign, Take Back Yoga, what – specifically – is it asking people to do, and who is it asking to change?

Ms. SHAH: The impetus of this campaign really began a couple years ago, when we noticed in countless yoga magazines, and specifically Yoga Journal, the lack of reference to Hindu or Hinduism. But it was full of references to other faiths, particularly Buddhism – and even mystical Christianity, for example.

So ultimately, when we got a hold of somebody at Yoga Journal and they told us that yes, in fact, we avoid using the terms Hindu and Hinduism because they carry too much baggage, we, as an advocacy organization for the Hindu-American community, obviously felt compelled to speak up.

CHIDEYA: Let me bring in Virginia Cowen. You teach health and physical education; you’re a yoga instructor. So do you agree with Sheetal’s perspective on the practice of yoga in this country, and what Take Back Yoga is trying to do?

Prof. COWEN: I’m not Hindu. I am a body worker so I practice massage, Pilates, personal training, in addition to yoga. And my training in yoga included instruction in yoga philosophy. And I will, as a practitioner, do anything that’s legal to get people to stretch, because I think it’s very good for them.

I think people need to practice stress reduction, and however people do that is great by me. But many of the classes, I think, have evolved into something else, and then yoga is just the sales tool rather than something that’s an intact practice.

CHIDEYA: And so, what about this hybrid fitness genres? I want to ask both of you about this, but Virginia first. You know, we heard about lip yoga and, you know, Mommy and Me Yoga, and power yoga. I mean, do you think that it’s been over-marketed or over-specified?

Prof. COWEN: A spa director I heard at a conference once said that she did a class called facelift yoga because she just wanted to get people in the door. And so when you get that extreme – disco yoga, for example, or yoga with loud music totally defeats the purpose of withdrawing your senses and turning the attention inward.

CHIDEYA: Sheetal, what do you think about that?

Ms. SHAH: I actually agree with a lot of what Virginia said. I think that there are spectrums that are pretty legitimate, and then there are some that you hear about – yoga and wine, yoga and chocolate, naked yoga – makes you kind of wonder exactly what’s going on, and is that really yoga? Is that really serving the purpose of what yoga was meant to do?

CHIDEYA: If you’re just joining us, you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We’re speaking with Sheetal Shah, of the Hindu American Foundation; and Virginia Cowen, associate professor of health, physical education and dance at the City University of New York. We’re talking about a campaign by the Hindu American Foundation called Take Back Yoga, asking Americans to recognize yoga’s roots in Hinduism.

Virginia, I’m going to go back to you. Do you think that it’s important to explicitly talk about the link to Hinduism, the link to all of the different Vedic texts, and the gods that are incorporated, even, into the names of the poses -or is that not important to you?

Prof. COWEN: As an instructor, it’s not important to me. And I guess if you look at the eight limbs of yoga, there are some basic tenants in that, that sort of apply to human nature – nonviolence, noncompetition. And that part of philosophy, I think, can be easily incorporated even into a fitness class.

To listen to this program, click here...

Review of American Veda

April 6, 2011 by  
Filed under Spirituality

By Michael J. Altman

A Methodist church near my house advertises for “Gentle Yoga Classes” on one of those church signs usually reserved for witty and redemptive one-liners like “Jesus: Your Get Out of Hell Free Card.” Meanwhile, a local pizza place lists a “Kosmic Karma” pie on its menu. Indian spiritual language has crept into American vernacular culture. But where did it come from? Is there some connection between karmic pizza and yoga in church?


In American Veda, Philip Goldberg tells the story of a new American tradition, derived from both the practices of yoga, and the philosophy of Vedanta. He names this “Vedanta-yoga,” as distinguished from other aspects of Hindu religious culture (such as the worship of multi-limbed deities) that might be less meaningful for Americans.

For Goldberg, it all adds up to the slow “Vedicization” of American spirituality. By this he means that Americans have become more comfortable with a view of the world ultimately found in the ancient literature of India—the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. First, there is the idea that the self and the ground of Being (or the Divine, God, Brahman, Consciousness, etc.) are one. The full realization of this truth leads to liberation and the cessation of suffering. Second, there are a number of paths toward this realization and no single path works for everyone. Third, it follows then that, at bottom, all religious and spiritual traditions, while looking different, share the same goal of divine realization. Vedanta-Yoga is thus a monist, pluralist, and perennialist tradition of American spirituality built from Indian religious sources.

Two Hundred Years of American Vedanta

In the nineteenth century the first wave of Vedic thought broke on American shores. Transcendentalists, including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, read the Bhagavad Gita and found in it a spiritual solution to the materialism of early American industrialism. Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott turned to Vedic sources and combined them with Western esoteric and occult traditions to produce Theosophy. Goldberg also finds Vedic influences in the 19th-century births of Christian Science and New Thought movements.

The nineteenth century was capped off with the 1893 arrival of Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk and disciple of the Bengali guru Ramakrishna, to the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago where he spoke to a crowd of liberal Protestants about the basics of Vedanta philosophy. Vivekananda stuck around and established the Vedanta Societies that are still with us today. Vivekananda offered a flesh and blood example of the Vedic philosophy Americans had found in ancient Indian texts throughout the century.

To read the rest of this review, click here.

Lost Jesus Sutras Reveal Ancient Chinese Christianity

It’s an amazing story, one only now being told. More than 1,300 years ago, a Persian Christian monk named Aleben traveled 3,000 miles along the ancient caravan route known as the Silk Road all the way to China, carrying precious copies of the New Testament writings (probably in Syriac). Aleben and his fellow Christian monks stopped in the Chinese city of Chang-au (Xian), where, under the protection of the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong, he founded a CHristian monastery and began the arduous task of translating the Christian texts into Chinese. It was the year A.D. 635. When the Italian explorer Marco Polo arrived in China nearly 600 years later, he was astonished to discover that a tiny Christian community had existed there for centuries.


We know about this amazing Christian evangelist and his genial Chinese hosts because in 1623 graver diggers working outside of Xian dug up a stele weighing two tons and carved with 2,000 Chinese characters. Now known as the Monument Stele and residing in a museum in Xian, It was created in A.D. 781 and tells the tale Aleben and what the Chinese writers called “the Luminous Religion” because it taught of light. Here is what the Stele proclaimed:

The Emperor Taizong was a champion of culture. He created prosperity and encouraged illustrious sages to bestow their wisdom on the people. There was a saint of great virtue named Aleben, who came from the Qin Empire carrying the true scriptures. He had read the azure clouds and divined that he should journey to the East. Along the way, Aleben avoided danger and calamity by observing the rhythm of the wind.

In the ninth year of the Zhenguan reign [A.D. 635], Aleben reaching Chang-an [Zian]. The Emperor sent his minister, Duke Xuanling, together with a contingent of the palace guard, to the western outskirts to accompany Aleben to the palace.

The translation work on his scriptures took place in the Imperial Library and the Emperor studied them in his Private Chambers. After the Emperor became familiar with the True Teachings, he issued a decree and ordered that it be propagated…

… the Emperor issued a proclamation, saying:

“We have studied these scriptures and found them otherworldly, profound and full of mystery.

We found their words lucid and direct.

We have contemplated the birth and growth of the tradition from which these teachings sprang.

These teachings will save all creatures and benefit mankind, and it is on ly proper that they be practiced throughout the world.”

Following the Emperor’s orders, the Greater Qin Monastery was built in the I-ning section of the Capital. Twenty-one ordained monks of the Luminous Religion were allowed to live there…

The Emperor Gaozong [A.D. 650-683] reverently continued the tradition of his ancestor and enhanced the Luminous Religion by building temples in every province. He bestowed honors upon Aleben, declarin ghim the Great Dharma Lord of the Empire. The Luminous Religion spread throughout all ten provinces, the Empire prospered and peace prevailed. Temples were built in 100 cities and countless families received the blessings of the Luminous Religion.

Christianity flourished in China for at least two hundred years. But then, around A.D. 850, Chinese leaders began a purge of foreign religions, including Buddhism. Buddhist temples were destroyed and, according to one source, more than 3,000 monks of the “Luminious Religion” were ordered to return to lay life.

For more than 1,300 years, scholars and missionaries have searched for the lost scriptures that Aleben translated into Chinese — and for his monastery. A breakthrough finally occurred in the late 1880s when a lonely Taoist monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered 50,000 lost Chinese manuscripts hidden away in more than 500 caves in Dunhuang. Amazingly enough, it wasn’t until about a decade ago, in 1998, that the full story was told. The Dunhuang manuscripts are sort of the Dead Sea Scrolls of ancient China, a cache of long-buried treasures that reveal a tremendous amount about life in ancient China — including the strange story of how the “Luminous Religion” took root there and blended with Taoist and Confucian elements to create a uniquely Chinese form of Christianity. The discovery of these ancient Chinese texts by western scholars — and their dissemination to museums in France and Britain — along with the many decades it took to get them translated and published — very much resembles the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Of the 50,000 manuscripts discovered at Dunhuang, only eight comprise what are now known as the Jesus Sutras. Nevertheless, they clearly show Christian influence. They paraphrase passages from the New Testament and thus provide direct evidence that the ancient Chinese writers of these texts clearly knew the Gospel accounts:

“Do not pile up treasures on the ground where they will rot or be stolen. Treasures must be stored in Heaven where they will not decay or rot.”

“Always tell the truth. Do not give pearls to swine; they will trample and destroy them. You will only be blamed by them for your actions and incur their anger. Why don’t you realize this yourself.”

“Knock on the door and it will be opened for you. Whatever you seek, you will obtain from the One Spirit. Know on the door and it will be opened for you.”

“Look at the birds in the air. They don’t plant or harvest, they have no barns or cellars. In the wilderness the One Spirit provided for the people and will also provide for you. You are more important than the birds and should not worry.”

The Jesus Sutra texts clearly are attempting to translate Christian ideas and ideals into an idiom that the Chinese people — steeped in Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian concepts — can understand. Thus, the Jesus Sutras speak of the “Higher Dharma” that leads to Peace and Joy. “It is the Sutras of the Luminous Religion that enable us to cross the sea of birth and death to the other shore, a land fragrant with the treasured aroma of Peace and Joy,” the Sutras proclaim. “The Sutras are like a great fire burning upon a high mountain. The light from that fire shines upon all.”

Here is how the Jesus Sutras relate the story of Jesus:

The Lord of Heaven sent the Cool Wind to a girl named Mo Yen. It entered her womb and at the moment she conceived. The Lord of Heaven did this to show that conception could take place without a husband. He knew there was no man near her and that people who saw it would say, “How great is the power of the Lord of Heaven.”…

… Mo Yen became pregnant and gave birth to a son named Jesus, whose father is the Cool Wind.

… When Jesus Messiah was born, the world saw clear signs in heaven and earth. A new star that could be seen everywhere appeared in heaven above. The star was as big as a cart wheel and shown brightly. At about that time, the One was born in the country of Ephrath in the city of Jerusalem. He was born the Messiah and after five years he began to preach the dharma.

… From the time the Messiah was 12 until he was 32 years old, he sought out people with bad karma and directed them to turn around and create good karma by following a wholesome path. After the Messiah had gathered 12 disciples, he concerned himself with the suffering of others. Those who had died were made to live. The blind were made to see. The deformed were healed and the sick were cured.

… For the sake of all living beings and to show us that a human life is as frail as a candle flame, the Messiah gave his body to these people of unwholesome karma. For the sake of the living in this world, he gave up his life.

… After the Messiah had accepted death, his enemies seized the Messiah and took him to a secluded spot, washed his hair and climbed to “the place of skulls,” which was called golgotha. They bound him to a pole and placed two highway robbers to the right and left of him. They bound the Messiah to the pole at the time of the fifth watch of the sixth day of fasting. They bound him at dawn and when the sun set in the west the sky became black in all four directions, the earth quaked and the hills trembled. tombs all over the world opened and the dead came to life. What person can see such a thing and not have faith in the teaching of the scriptures? To give one’s life like the Messiah is a mark of great faith.

Fascinating stuff, no? To see this early form of Christianity — delivered by means of a Nestorian monk in the 6th century — through the eyes of the poetic, Taoist-influenced Chinese translators and scribes is to go back in time. It is yet another reminder of the universality of the Gospel message, how it transcends all culture and language and philosophical concepts. Christian yogis, above all, who seek wisdom from the East as well as from our own traditions, should appreciate this.

As the Apostle Peter tells the righteous Roman centurian Cornelius, following his vision: “I see clearly now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him (Acts 10: 34-5).” We Christians who seek wisdom from the East.

If you’re interested in this topic, you can discover more in The Lost Sutras of Jesus: Unlocking the Ancient Wisdom of the Xian Monks, edited by Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore (Berkeley: Seastone, 2003).   A much more scholarly work, and without the frequently anti-Christian tone of Riegert and Moore, is Martin Palmer’s The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity (Wellspring/Ballantine, 2001).


« Previous PageNext Page »