Twenty two years ago I visited Xian to view the earliest record to date of Christians in China. In the Forest of Steles I found found an eight foot tall and two foot thick stone with Chinese and Syriac inscriptions. Recently I have had reason to reinvestigate this stone.
During a visit to Dazu last week I noticed what I thought might be small but significant Persian influences on some of the Buddhist/Daoist/Confucian statuary. Also the massive presentation of the 18 hells in one of the grottoes caused me to wonder about the origin of the doctrine and theology of “hell” since this idea is in conflict with early ideas about retribution in the afterlife in Buddhist and Daoist doctrine. Concepts of hell did not appear until the end of the Tang Dynasty and the early Song Period. Is it possible that Chinese religions adopted this doctrine from Christians who were a major influence during the Tang Dynasty? Does the idea of hell appear on the Nestorian Monument carved and erected in 781 AD under the official approval of the Tang Emperor? I read through a couple of the English translations by Legge, Holm, and Saeki but did not find any reference to hell. I began to slog my way through the Chinese inscription of more than that thousand characters. Then I came across a remarkable passage. It was declaring that the Messiah was sent to earth:
“…the illustrious and honorable Messiah, veiling his true dignity, appeared in the world as a man; angelic powers promulgated the glad tidings, a virgin gave birth to the Holy One in Syria; a bright star announced the felicitous event, and Persians observing the splendor came to present tribute; the ancient dispensation, as declared by the twenty-four holy men [the writers of the Old Testament], was then fulfilled, and he laid down great principles for the government of families and kingdoms; he established the new religion of the silent operation of the pure spirit of the Triune; he rendered virtue subservient to direct faith; he fixed the extent of the eight boundaries, thus completing the truth and freeing it from dross; he opened the gate of the three constant principles, introducing life and destroying death; he suspended the bright sun to invade the chambers of darkness, and the falsehoods of the devil were thereupon defeated; he set in motion the vessel of mercy by which to ascend to the bright mansions, whereupon rational beings were then released, having thus completed the manifestation of his power, in clear day he ascended to his true station.”
“chambers of darkness” 懸景日以破暗府。
An-fu is a reference to hell. Buddhism and Daoism did not have a concept of hell until they were exposed to Christians of the Tang Dynasty. In the subsequent Song Dynasty a formal expression of hell emerged. Chinese Buddhists conceived of 18 levels of hell and Daoists conceived of 10 domains.
In the Nestorian Monument text it mentions “chambers of darkness” in relation to the Messiah entering this domain to free those in the chambers of darkness. Buddhism or Daoism did not have a savior figure to release beings from hell. It was the duty of the individual to earn one’s way out of the Karmic wheel on which they were trapped. This was a new theological idea to consider that someone else could extend the benefit of their goodness to relieve the suffering of another.
Enter Guanyin. Guanyin was a minor Hindu diety. She came to China as part of the cosmology of Buddhist dieties. Then during the Tang Dynasty there was a major transformation. This male figure becomes female and is connected with the story of Miaoshan who converts to Buddhism. Her father gives her impossible tasks to complete in a short time such as emptying a like with a woven basket. She is added by divine agency and completes the impossible tasks. Her father orders her executed (crucifixion) and she finds her way to the chambers of darkness where she finds her father in torment and suffering. She gives him her arms and eyes and frees him from “hell.” In other stories it is her mother she finds in unrequited suffering. In Orthodox doctrine Christ enters hell during his three days in the grave and liberates the captives.
There was intense competition between Buddhists and Christians during the Tang Dynasty. Each borrowed from each other to win the affection of the people. Christians who erected the monument had no reservation about using Buddhist terms to describe the divine doctrines of Christianity. Likewise, Buddhists borrowed and adapted Christian doctrines and ritual.
The phrase “Chambers of Darkness” shows up in both Buddhism and Daoism in a highly complex development of levels or chambers of hell.