Christianity, Taoism & Qigong in Ancient China--A Surprising Connection!

Building healing bridges!

My healing from severe disability has occurred primarily through Traditional Chinese Medicine, Tai Chi and Qigong, ancient Chinese arts that were initially foreign and unacceptable to my scientific Western background and my conservative Christianity. I was thankful for the physical healing, but I also wanted to understand and integrate it with my own culture and with my Christian spirituality. Could I as a western Christian shake hands and join hearts with something so radically different?

I began a search that has taken me thousands of years into the past and thousands of miles into remote areas of China to discover the ancient Chinese Christian church that lived in harmonious dialogue with Taoism and Buddhism and practiced Qigong.

Discovery of that ancient Chinese Church helped me find deep roots for my own healing, not just in a physical sense but also in heart and spirit.  I discovered a common struggle for understanding and spiritual light in people on the opposite side of the globe in a radically different time and culture. Thus, my physical healing became the catalyst for a transformation of soul—and that is the meaning of true healing. 

I share some of the amazing story below.

 A story of two mountains

 Lou Guan Tai is the most famous Taoist site in the world, the legendary place where Lao Tsu wrote the Tao te Ching, which, along with the Bible, is one of the two most published books in the world. Lou Guan Tai, which has been restored, is in a remote area about 60 miles west of Xian, the city of the famed terracotta warriors. In the mural above, Lou Guan Tai is on a mountain in the foreground. In the distance to the right is another mountain with a small pagoda that has been there for almost 1400 years, marking the original site of DaQin, the first Christian church in China, dating back to 635 a.d.

 These two monasteries both thrived and dialogued with each other at the same time during the Tang dynasty (618-906 A.D.)  Da Qin and Christianity enjoyed royal favor and flourished for about 300 years, after which the Chinese church died out from persecution. The history of the Chinese Christian church was lost until the late 20th century when ancient documents were translated that revealed its astonishing story. A fascinating, detailed history of the Chinese church, along with translations of its scriptures, can be found in The Jesus Sutras, by Martin Palmer, Random House, New York, 2001.

On a trip to China in 2008, my husband Don and I sought out Lou Guan Tai and Da Qin, hoping to make connections between East and West, between Christianity and the Chinese healing arts.

The monastery at Lou Guan Tai provides a model of what DaQin might have looked like in ancient times. The statue is of Lao Tsu, who is venerated at this site.

  

Da Qin is remote and is accessible by motor scooters or by horse. It is about a 45 minute horseback ride from Lou Guan Tai. Only one pagoda remains of what was once a great complex.

Christianity was brought to China by missionaries and became isolated by wars and political strife from the Western Christian church before the canon was set for the New Testament and before some major doctrines of the Western church were established. Thus, while it had some basic Christian teachings and texts, it also developed its own writings (or “sutras”), commentaries and doctrines. A stone stele was discovered in the early 20th century detailing the story of the “Religion of Light,” as this Chinese church called itself.

 

This copy of the stone stele is at Da Qin. We also saw the original in the Forest of Stone Steles in Xian.

 Other texts were later discovered in caves in Dunhuang and have only recently been collected and translated. (Martin Palmer includes translations in his book.)

[See the Rising UP! page “Dunhuang Discovery” for more pictures and information about the ancient texts and the caves where they were found—a discovery comparable to the Dead Sea Scrolls.]

 Multi-cultural, pacifist, vegetarian, egalitarian

Texts reveal that the Chinese Church differed from the Western Church in being multi-cultural, pacifist, vegetarian, and egalitarian in terms of gender and class. Thus, in some ways, it was a unique expression of Christianity that could have been closer in some ways to what Christ intended than what has developed in the Western Church.

While the Church of the West developed as a monolithic entity, the Church of the East was more a confederation of churches. The fact that they did not force doctrinal agreement allowed more openness in their interpretations of the meaning of the Gospel. One result was that Christianity was able to adapt certain parts of its message to the unique aspects of many different cultures. For example, it addressed issues that were prevalent in Chinese culture but were absent in the West, such as karma and reincarnation. 


The head of the stone stele describing the story of DaQin contains a cross-cultural fusion of images. Two curling dragons hold a tablet that has a delicate (barely visible) carving of a cross rising from a cloud-wreathed lotus flower. Stylized Western flowers rise on both sides, and the top of the cross holds a flaming pearl. The clouds represent yin and the flaming pearl yang. The lotus is a Buddhist symbol of spirituality rising above the murky waters of existence. Christianity is skillfully set within the fundamental spiritual images of ancient China. The nine characters translate as: "The Record of the Transmission of the Religion of Light of the West in China."

Early Chinese Christianity sets the historical model for bringing major philosophical systems into interaction and dialogue with each other (Palmer, 102). It needed to draw upon its Jewish and Christian roots and yet also define itself as unique within the philosophical context of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, all of which had powerful influence in Chinese culture of the time. Thus, these great traditions intersected dynamically in the early Chinese church that was centered at Da Qin.

A highly literate church. In contrast to the Western Church, which evangelized primitive tribes in Europe, the Church of the East dealt with ancient, highly literate, civilized cultures and peoples. It had to develop in a world where theological writings, philosophical debate and schools of education had existed for hundreds and thousands of years, and it had to function as a minority among other faiths.

Larger and more widespread than the Western church. In the fourth through eighth centuries the Church of East was more widespread and more active in a greater range of cultures than the Western Church, extending throughout large portions of Arabia, northeast Africa, Afghanistan, Central Asia, India, and Sri Lanka. The Church of the East far outstripped the Church of the West in the size, scale, and range of cultures within which it operated.

Branded as “heretic.” The Western Church, striving to protect its doctrines and political power, called the Eastern Church “Nestorian” and dismissed it as heretical. This dismissal continues today, with churches that are descended from the Roman church (Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and Protestant churches) taking the view that the Church of the East was heretical. Recently discovered texts should compel new respect.

 Qigong—Practiced by Christians, Taoists & Buddhists

Qigong has been indigenous in China for thousands of years and has always been an integral part of daily life for healing and health maintenance. That is still true today. In ancient times Taoists and Buddhists also practiced Qigong meditation as part of their path to achieving enlightenment. Chinese Christians, who came from Taoist and Buddhist backgrounds, would have engaged in some form of these common cultural practices.

Taoists and Buddhists each had their own schools of Qigong, which differed in various aspects. (Some of the history of Qigong is described by Dr. Yang, Jwing Ming in his book Qigong Meditation: Small Circulation, which is the source of some information found here.)

Indian Buddhist Qigong probably has the longest history. Buddhism was imported into China during the Eastern Han Dynasty (circa 58.A.D.). Its meditative practices were influenced by traditional Chinese Qigong. Buddhist Qigong focused more exclusively on meditation than Taoist Qigong. The body and physical health was not nearly as important as achieving spiritual enlightenment, so the health of the body was often ignored.

 While meditation was an important aspect of Taoist Qigong, various styles of Taoist Qigong cultivated both the spirit and the physical body, with the goal of achieving a long and happy life. Thus, strengthening the body through physical training and healing the body through use of herbs, breathing and movement were important components of some types of Taoist Qigong.

Early Chinese Christians no doubt practiced Qigong in a variety of ways, both for physical healing and for meditation and spiritual development.

 

Daoyin: The above chart, dating to 168 B.C., was found in burial mounds near Changsha.  There are forty-four color illustrations of human figures performing therapeutic exercises, with accompanying captions. Specific exercises and postures were intended to cure corresponding illnesses. These exercises look much like those we do in Qigong classes today. 

Qigong Bridges Time, Space and Culture

 My discovery of the ancient Chinese Christian connection to Qigong enriches my own practice. I now understand that New Creation Tai Chi-Qigong, the Qigong I teach in my classes, is a 21st century continuation of an ancient healing practice that creates open space for sharing common human experience, understanding and insight among the great religious and philosophical traditions. This wisdom heals me in body, mind and spirit and compels me to share that healing with others. 



 

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