When Buddha met Jesus in China

Inter-religious Cooperation in the Tang Dynasty


For the last few days I have been translating the Heart Sutra, perhaps the most beloved Sutra of Buddhism. I am doing this to learn Chinese characters and to deepen my understanding of the Luminous Religion (Assyrian Church of the East) that arrived in China at the beginning of perhaps the most glorious dynasty in Chinese history.

In 781 AD a three meter tall and one meter thick monument was erected in Da Qin, a Christian monastery about 45 kilometers outside of Xian the capital of China. It had a Chinese dedication of more than a thousand characters and a few Syriac inscriptions. It  mentions the author of the inscriptions: Jingjing. Jingjing was probably known as Adam in his homeland in Mesopotamia. Educated in Nisibis (modern day Turkey)  and under alligence to the Patriarch (Selucia-Cestiphon, Iraq). A small community of about 30,000 Christians lived around and near Xian. They arrived in 635 from the  Middle East with Bishop Alopen at the invitation of the Tang Emperor. Immediately the Christians were asked to translate their scripture. A highly sophisticated school of translation developed probably similar to the one in Gunduk Shapir (Afganistan) where Syriac speaking Christians dominated the intellectual and academic accomplishments. The same thing seems to have happened in China. Jingjing rose to the surface of this intellectual endeavor one hundred and fifty years later.

As a gift to the Tang Dynasty a black stone monument was erected in praise of the Dynasty and in response to the many gifts of land and permissions to build churches and monasteries. What happened after this celebration in 781 AD perhaps changed Christianity in China and Buddhism for the next 1200 years.

Leading up to this great interplay between Christianity and other religions in China were three great Buddhist scholars who made epic journeys, collected original Indian Buddhist works, and laid the foundation for a world class Imperial  library in the capital city of Xian.

Xuanzang (602-664)

The Heart Sutra was first translated by Xuanzang (602-664) into Chinese during the Tang Dynasty shortly after 660 AD when he returned from India with 657 manuscripts.

When the Sui Dynasty fell when he was fourteen years old he left his hometown of Luoyang. He moved to Chengdu and was ordained when he was twenty. He began to travel in search of the sacred books of Buddhism. He ended up in Chang’an (Xian) mainly because of the school of translation he helped to found in the capital city under the vision of Emperor Taizong who provided the stability, peace, and access to texts.

After a few years he recognized the discrepancies among the Buddhist texts. He desired to go to India in search of original texts.

He became famous for his seventeen year overland trip to India and back, which is recorded in detail in his autobiography and a biography which provided the inspiration for the epic novel Journey to the West.

When he returned from his seventeen year journey (629-646) he was received in Xian as an academic hero. Students from Japan, Korea, and China sat at his feet until his death in 664. One of his most famous pupils, Kuiji, wrote commentaries on the Heart Sutra as well as the Diamond, and Lotus Sutra. He used at least three texts compiled by Xuanzang.

Xuanzong returned to Xian that had vastly changed during his absence in India. Thousands of Christian foreigners had set up residence in the city. Their leader Alopen was welcome in the Tang Court and were members of a translation school operating out of the court library at the Wild Goose Pagoda.

Amoghavajra (701-774)

Following in the footsteps of  Xuanzang was Amoghavajra He significantly added to the body of Indian Buddhist literature in China. In 719 Amoghavajra was ordained. In 741 he was expelled from China along with almost all foreign monks. He took this opportunity to go to Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and India. It was in India that he studied Tantric Buddhism. He translated the first portion of the Tattvasamgraha. He returned to China in 746 with 500 manuscripts to add to the Tang library. Jingjing was 12 years old at the time.

In 750 Amoghavajra became a military chaplin in the western frontier. It was during this period that he translated the yoga tantra of Esoteric Buddhism. It was a popular method for attaining enlightenment. Amoghavajra became a prisoner of war during the An Lushan rebellion in 757. He was freed two years later and became a royal priest armed with his Scripture for Humane Kings. It was an elaborate ritual favored by the Tang Court. He used it to resist the 200,000 man army on the western frontier. General Pugu Huain, a renegade Chinese General who allied with enemy forces, dropped dead as he was ready to attack.This propitious death was credited to Amoghavajra.

By 767 Amoghavajra completed his life goal to build a temple on Mt Wutai. Jinge temple was dedicated to Manjusri an enlightened Buddha as protector of China. Although Mount Wutai is a Taoist center, the establishment of a Buddhist Temple on the same mountain is evidence of the inter-religious environment of the Tang Dynasty.


Prajna (734-810)

The stage was set for the next generationsof Buddhist and Christian scholars in Xian. In the Biography of Eminent Monks we read about the life of Prajna known as Bore Sanzang. He was born in present day Afghanistan. He was a brilliant student. He made a religious pilgrimage at fourteen. When he converted from his family religion of Confucianism to Buddhism. He entered Nalanda Univerity in Central India. Xuanzang had spent several years there copying Sanscit manuscripts during his pilgrimage a century earlier. Prajna studied for eighteen years at this university and specialized in Yogic practice. At some he was inspired to go to China and spread Buddhism. After a brief period of study in southern India he sailed to Sri Lanka where he collected original manuscripts and then sailed to China.

Prajna had a relative in Xian. Luohaoxin was a miitary commander. Prajna was given the assignment to translate The Mahayana Sutra on the Way to the Six Paramitas. He was also assigned to work with Jingjing, a Nestorian priest who had designed, constructed, and erected the famous Xian-fu stone seven years earlier. Jingjing was a respected leader and  translator from the Da Qin Temple. Because Prajna did not know Chinese the first draft did not meet the expectations of the Emperor. He moved the translators to the Xi Ming Temple where Xuanzhuang had once worked. There they had the assistance of dozens of translators. First Prajna translated the Da Hua hanf Zhe Wen Fo Na Luo Li Jing. For this work he was endowed with the title of Tripitaka Master. In 790 he set to work on the Heart Sutra with the help of Jingjing others although Jingjing was at work on  the Life of Buddha using materials Prajna brought from Sri Lanka.

Jingjing used some non-Buddhist terms in his translations. The Emperor wanted Prajna and Jingjing to differenciate the Buddhist and non-Buddhist terms. Jingjing had a tendency to mix Christian and Buddhist terms as evidenced in the Xian-Fu stone of 781. Apparently he continued this practice with Prajna.

Prajna returned to India in search of more manuscripts (792-794). He returned to China and traveled around Mount Wutai. He returned to translation work at the request of the Emperor in the Chongfu Temple in Xian. In this temple was a Japanese monk, Kukai. In 804 he returned to Japan with translation products of Jingjing and Prajna.and founded the Shingon Sect of Buddhism.

In 810 AD Prajna died in Luoyang. He is buried in the Longmen Grottoes on the eastern heights.

  • the Heart Sūtra ( 般若波羅蜜多心經幽贊, T.33.1710 – English translation by Heng-ching Shih and Dan Lusthaus, A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heart Sutra, Numata Center, Berkeley, 2001),
  • the Diamond Sūtra (T.33.1700 and T.40.1816),
  • the Lotus Sūtra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtra)( 妙法蓮華經玄贊, T.34.1723),

About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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