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New discovery in China shows influence of Nestorian Christianity

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  • Fr. John Whiteford
    This article is interesting for a couple of reasons: 1. I had wondered how it was that the Buddhist god, Bodhisattva (who is believed to be an emination of
    Message 1 of 3 , May 4, 2001
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      This article is interesting for a couple of reasons:

      1. I had wondered how it was that the Buddhist god,
      Bodhisattva (who is believed to be an "emination" of
      the Buddha) went from being depicted as a man, to
      being depicted as a woman. The Bodhisattva is the god
      of mercy and compassion in Buddhism. In China, the
      Bodhisattva is called Guanyin, and is depicted as
      woman... usually with a child.

      2. I have heard Protestants use the similiarity
      between the depiction of Guanyin and the Virgin Mary
      to argue that this reflects the pagan influence on the
      Church when this article shows that the reverse is the
      case.

      3. This is another bit of evidence that the
      Nestorians were not originally iconoclastic... another
      bit of evidence being the Sian-fu Stone inscription:
      http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/eastasia/781nestorian.html

      Which mentions how the first Nestorian bishop came to
      China with both sacred texts and images.

      *****************************************



      http://www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/010305/china.htm



      Did Christianity thrive in China?
      Digging for evidence in an ancient church



      By Bay Fang


      LOU GUAN TAI, CHINA�Martin Palmer was covered in bird
      droppings when he made the discovery of a lifetime. He
      clambered up a rickety ladder into the ancient pagoda,
      picked his way through broken tiles and wood beams,
      looked up�and was shocked by what he saw. Above him,
      shrouded in dust, was a 10-foot-high clay grotto. The
      top was classical Tang dynasty sculpture, but at the
      bottom were the remains of a figure, one leg cocked
      and wearing flowing robes. Palmer recognized it at
      once: "It was a depiction of the Virgin Mary, and I
      was looking at China's first Nativity scene."


      Here, beneath fields of kiwi fruit bushes, lay what is
      likely the oldest surviving Christian site in all of
      China. Dating back to 638 A.D., the site provides the
      first evidence that Christianity thrived throughout
      China from the seventh to the ninth centuries as the
      imperially sanctioned "religion of light." The
      excavation project was launched last week. "If they
      have found any Christian buildings, it would be an
      earthshaking discovery," says Jason Sun, associate
      curator of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of
      Art.


      Palmer, who heads the Britain-based Alliance of
      Religions and Conservation, became interested in the
      site while translating ancient Christian scrolls that
      describe it. His research turned up a map, made by
      Japanese spies posing as archaeologists, who had
      charted the area before Japan's invasion of China in
      1937. The map showed only religious sites (and, if
      soaked in lemon juice, every military post in the
      county). Palmer followed it to an area 50 miles
      southwest of the ancient Chinese capital of Xi'an,
      where there stood a leaning pagoda called Da Qin,
      meaning "To the West."


      Nun's tale. Palmer's first clue to the significance of
      the site came when he climbed a hill overlooking it.
      Looking down, he realized that the site was laid out
      not on a north-south axis, as Chinese temples are, but
      instead pointing toward the east like a proper
      Christian church. Palmer ran excitedly down the hill
      and was immediately confronted by an old Buddhist nun,
      who demanded to know why he was shouting. When Palmer
      told her he thought the site was Christian, she
      surprised him by snapping, "Of course it was! This was
      the most famous Christian site in all of China!"


      Previously, all that scholars knew about the earliest
      Christians in China came from the Nestorian Stone, a
      tablet discovered in the 17th century that describes
      the arrival of Christian missionaries in 635 A.D. Led
      by a Bishop Alopen, they came from modern-day
      Afghanistan and did not recognize the pope. But in the
      absence of other documentation, they had long been
      considered a marginal group that never penetrated
      Chinese culture. But Palmer's discovery shows how
      important these first Christians really were: Their
      church sits squarely in the middle of what was an
      imperial compound for the study of Taoism, the
      official religion of the Tang dynasty.


      The finding demonstrates the religion's powerful
      influence on Chinese culture. For example, the goddess
      of mercy, Guanyin, is the most popular Chinese deity
      and for centuries was depicted as male. It was not
      until the eighth century, when Christianity was at its
      height in China, that Guanyin began appearing as a
      female, wearing robes and carrying a baby�just like
      the Virgin Mary. "Here we see a Christian figure
      passing into Chinese folk religion," says Palmer.


      The discovery also introduces a uniquely Chinese brand
      of Christianity. This version, mixed with Taoism and
      Buddhism, differed from the Roman church by discarding
      the idea of original sin and preaching against slavery
      and for gender equality and vegetarianism. "At the
      time Rome was trying to convert Anglo-Saxons to
      Christianity," says Palmer, "the church in China had
      developed another understanding of Christ that was
      more egalitarian, compassionate, and all-encompassing
      than the one in the West."


      The excavated site is expected to become a major
      tourist attraction. Excavation of the sealed
      underground rooms, beginning this summer, could turn
      up liturgical vessels, scripts, and statues of saints.
      Palmer is working with Chinese officials on plans for
      a museum to house the artifacts. But sometimes he
      thinks back on the moment of discovery: "We all
      stopped suddenly in front of the Nativity scene and
      realized we would tell the world, and this was the
      last time it would be our secret. Then we all bowed
      and went out."


      http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/eastasia/781nestorian.html

      =====
      ********************************************************
      * Fr. John Whiteford IC -|- XC *
      * ----|---- *
      * St. Jonah of Manchuria Orthodox Mission | *
      * Serving the Spring, Woodlands, \| *
      * and Conroe, Texas area. |\ *
      * http://www.saintjonah.org/ NI | KA *

      __________________________________________________
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    • David Starr
      Dear Fr. John et al.: XPICTOC BBOCKPECE! Kuanyin is not strictly-speaking a god in traditional Buddhism, but an emanation of the Boddhisattva ( enlightenment
      Message 2 of 3 , May 4, 2001
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        Dear Fr. John et al.:
        XPICTOC BBOCKPECE!
        Kuanyin is not strictly-speaking a god in traditional Buddhism, but an
        emanation of the Boddhisattva ("enlightenment being", Avalokiteshvara. The
        "gods" of India function in Buddhist cosmology as finite but powerful
        sentient beings, who are said to have been converted to Buddhism by the
        preaching of Sidhartha Gautama, known as "Buddha"--a name which means "the
        awakened" or "the enlightened one." He is said to have been a human being
        who realized truths about human suffering, giving rise to compassion.
        Neither he nor the "gods" who populate the Buddhist universe are in any real
        sense rivals to the true God. Boddhisattvas are understood to be human
        beings who achieved such excellence that they became personifications of
        such virtues as wisdom and compassion. Of these, Avalokiteshvara (whose name
        means "hearer of the cries [of the suffering world]") became very popular in
        Tibet under the name, Chenrezig. His enlightenment was thought to have been
        such that he could appear in many guises for the benefit of mankind; one of
        these was a feminine manifestation, named "Tara." She is perhaps the
        original of which Kuanyin in China is a development. Such beings function
        analogously to saints, inasmuch as they are thought to be men whose
        spiritual attainments enabled them to do good in supernaturally potent ways.
        None of this has a thing to do with the Theotokos, though the imagery of a
        very kind and powerful woman who offers great help to suffering humanity is
        in common. What Buddhism most importantly lacks is a kataphatic
        understanding of the Holy Trinity or the Incarnation of our Lord, God and
        Saviour, Jesus Christ. For all its metaphysical elaboration and subtlety, it
        is a humanistic attempt to generate virtues to help human beings cope with
        the soul-destroying passions and the sufferings attendant upon our sinful
        condition. As such, it has both the sorts of insight and virtue for which
        some of the Holy Fathers saw some Greek philosophers as striving toward our
        Faith; it also comes with cultural tendencies toward idolatry, pride and
        mistaken notions of something like a doctrine of the divinity of man. It is
        very like Platonism in these ways, particularly the late Academy, which
        atttempted to compete with the Church for the souls of Graeco-Roman people.
        Protestant allegations of "influence" are mostly ignorant claims that depend
        entirely on chance similarities; the more one knows, the less weight they
        carry. Kuanyin is probably no more modelled on the Theotokos than She is on
        Kuanyin; the Mother of God the Son according to the flesh is a historical
        woman, while Tara/Kuanyin is evidently a mythic elaboration of Buddhist
        hagiography.
        The "politically correct" multi-cultural spin in the U.S. News story is, of
        course, very ignorant of what the Orthodox Faith truly is, describing
        Nestorianism in terms which partly reflect its similarity to Orthodoxy
        (e.g., an understanding of "original sin" without inherited guilt or a
        helplessly unfree will, and the meatless monastic diet); on the other hand,
        the bias is clearly not conducive to true faith. It suggests that whatever
        was good in Nestorianism must have come from native Chinese tradition. The
        Fordham story, on the other hand is much better. The gospel of Christ may
        have been far better represented in Asia than we know; may it be so.
        HE IS RISEN INDEED!
        In Him, David

        > -----Original Message-----
        > From: Fr. John Whiteford [mailto:frjohnwhiteford@...]
        > Sent: Friday, May 04, 2001 11:50 AM
        > To: The Rocor List; The Orthodox List
        > Subject: [orthodox-rocor] New discovery in China shows influence of
        > Nestorian Christianity
        >
        >
        > This article is interesting for a couple of reasons:
        >
        > 1. I had wondered how it was that the Buddhist god,
        > Bodhisattva (who is believed to be an "emination" of
        > the Buddha) went from being depicted as a man, to
        > being depicted as a woman. The Bodhisattva is the god
        > of mercy and compassion in Buddhism. In China, the
        > Bodhisattva is called Guanyin, and is depicted as
        > woman... usually with a child.
        >
        > 2. I have heard Protestants use the similiarity
        > between the depiction of Guanyin and the Virgin Mary
        > to argue that this reflects the pagan influence on the
        > Church when this article shows that the reverse is the
        > case.
        >
        > 3. This is another bit of evidence that the
        > Nestorians were not originally iconoclastic... another
        > bit of evidence being the Sian-fu Stone inscription:
        > http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/eastasia/781nestorian.html
        >
        > Which mentions how the first Nestorian bishop came to
        > China with both sacred texts and images.
        >
        > *****************************************
        >
        >
        >
        > http://www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/010305/china.htm
        >
        >
        >
        > Did Christianity thrive in China?
        > Digging for evidence in an ancient church
        >
        >
        >
        > By Bay Fang
        >
        >
        > LOU GUAN TAI, CHINA–Martin Palmer was covered in bird
        > droppings when he made the discovery of a lifetime. He
        > clambered up a rickety ladder into the ancient pagoda,
        > picked his way through broken tiles and wood beams,
        > looked up–and was shocked by what he saw. Above him,
        > shrouded in dust, was a 10-foot-high clay grotto. The
        > top was classical Tang dynasty sculpture, but at the
        > bottom were the remains of a figure, one leg cocked
        > and wearing flowing robes. Palmer recognized it at
        > once: "It was a depiction of the Virgin Mary, and I
        > was looking at China's first Nativity scene."
        >
        >
        > Here, beneath fields of kiwi fruit bushes, lay what is
        > likely the oldest surviving Christian site in all of
        > China. Dating back to 638 A.D., the site provides the
        > first evidence that Christianity thrived throughout
        > China from the seventh to the ninth centuries as the
        > imperially sanctioned "religion of light." The
        > excavation project was launched last week. "If they
        > have found any Christian buildings, it would be an
        > earthshaking discovery," says Jason Sun, associate
        > curator of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of
        > Art.
        >
        >
        > Palmer, who heads the Britain-based Alliance of
        > Religions and Conservation, became interested in the
        > site while translating ancient Christian scrolls that
        > describe it. His research turned up a map, made by
        > Japanese spies posing as archaeologists, who had
        > charted the area before Japan's invasion of China in
        > 1937. The map showed only religious sites (and, if
        > soaked in lemon juice, every military post in the
        > county). Palmer followed it to an area 50 miles
        > southwest of the ancient Chinese capital of Xi'an,
        > where there stood a leaning pagoda called Da Qin,
        > meaning "To the West."
        >
        >
        > Nun's tale. Palmer's first clue to the significance of
        > the site came when he climbed a hill overlooking it.
        > Looking down, he realized that the site was laid out
        > not on a north-south axis, as Chinese temples are, but
        > instead pointing toward the east like a proper
        > Christian church. Palmer ran excitedly down the hill
        > and was immediately confronted by an old Buddhist nun,
        > who demanded to know why he was shouting. When Palmer
        > told her he thought the site was Christian, she
        > surprised him by snapping, "Of course it was! This was
        > the most famous Christian site in all of China!"
        >
        >
        > Previously, all that scholars knew about the earliest
        > Christians in China came from the Nestorian Stone, a
        > tablet discovered in the 17th century that describes
        > the arrival of Christian missionaries in 635 A.D. Led
        > by a Bishop Alopen, they came from modern-day
        > Afghanistan and did not recognize the pope. But in the
        > absence of other documentation, they had long been
        > considered a marginal group that never penetrated
        > Chinese culture. But Palmer's discovery shows how
        > important these first Christians really were: Their
        > church sits squarely in the middle of what was an
        > imperial compound for the study of Taoism, the
        > official religion of the Tang dynasty.
        >
        >
        > The finding demonstrates the religion's powerful
        > influence on Chinese culture. For example, the goddess
        > of mercy, Guanyin, is the most popular Chinese deity
        > and for centuries was depicted as male. It was not
        > until the eighth century, when Christianity was at its
        > height in China, that Guanyin began appearing as a
        > female, wearing robes and carrying a baby–just like
        > the Virgin Mary. "Here we see a Christian figure
        > passing into Chinese folk religion," says Palmer.
        >
        >
        > The discovery also introduces a uniquely Chinese brand
        > of Christianity. This version, mixed with Taoism and
        > Buddhism, differed from the Roman church by discarding
        > the idea of original sin and preaching against slavery
        > and for gender equality and vegetarianism. "At the
        > time Rome was trying to convert Anglo-Saxons to
        > Christianity," says Palmer, "the church in China had
        > developed another understanding of Christ that was
        > more egalitarian, compassionate, and all-encompassing
        > than the one in the West."
        >
        >
        > The excavated site is expected to become a major
        > tourist attraction. Excavation of the sealed
        > underground rooms, beginning this summer, could turn
        > up liturgical vessels, scripts, and statues of saints.
        > Palmer is working with Chinese officials on plans for
        > a museum to house the artifacts. But sometimes he
        > thinks back on the moment of discovery: "We all
        > stopped suddenly in front of the Nativity scene and
        > realized we would tell the world, and this was the
        > last time it would be our secret. Then we all bowed
        > and went out."
        >
        >
        > http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/eastasia/781nestorian.html
        >
        > =====
        > ********************************************************
        > * Fr. John Whiteford IC -|- XC *
        > * ----|---- *
        > * St. Jonah of Manchuria Orthodox Mission | *
        > * Serving the Spring, Woodlands, \| *
        > * and Conroe, Texas area. |\ *
        > * http://www.saintjonah.org/ NI | KA *
        >
        > __________________________________________________
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      • frjohnwhiteford@yahoo.com
        ... Indeed He is risen! ... Buddhism, but an ... Avalokiteshvara. I understand that nuance... but in popular Buddhism, it is a nuance that is lost on rank and
        Message 3 of 3 , May 4, 2001
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          David Starr wrote:
          > Dear Fr. John et al.:
          > XPICTOC BBOCKPECE!

          Indeed He is risen!

          > Kuanyin is not strictly-speaking a god in traditional
          Buddhism, but an
          > emanation of the Boddhisattva ("enlightenment being",
          Avalokiteshvara.

          I understand that nuance... but in popular Buddhism, it is a nuance
          that is lost on rank and file Buddhists.

          > None of this has a thing to do with the Theotokos, though the
          imagery of a
          > very kind and powerful woman who offers great help to suffering
          humanity is
          > in common.

          I think the archeological evidence would indicate that there is at
          least a good possibility that the popular conception of Guanyin.
          Which was as a male, and only after the advent of the Nestorian
          mission did female images begin to appear.
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