Christian mission among Buddhists in Asia has traditionally been ‘very hard’, not because of open conflict necessarily, but because of indifference to or misunderstanding of the gospel, or because of the way the gospel has been offered. One can easily imagine the saffron-clad monk respectfully listening to the gospel message, apparently agreeing with much that he has heard, and then not doing anything about it.
Missionaries tell stories of long years and much prayer invested in Christian witness to Buddhists, with little fruit by way of explicit conversions. There are a handful of exceptions: phenomenal church growth in China and Mongolia are two.
Buddhism throws up many challenges:
There is language which is outside of Christian experience. (What might ‘taking refuge in the Three Jewels’ mean?)
Words are used differently (emptiness, self, enlightenment).
The texts are written in Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, and Sanskrit, leading to different spellings of words (nirvana, nibbana).
There are complex words that are simply difficult to pronounce (try Ajitasenavyakarananirdesa) and concepts that are unfathomable (emptiness, nirvana).
In some cases, it is best to leave the original words: hence dhukha, nirvana, dharma, bodhi, samsara are all now widely used in English (and their equivalents in other European languages), without change or translation.
There are a number of ways that Christians could approach Buddhists:
A textual approach might ask questions like, Which texts are important? What is the canon? What is the nature of textual authority? What is the key teaching? (Some Buddhist sects gather around one particular text, like the Lotus Sutra.)
A historico-critical approach might examine historical developments of the texts, the teachings, and the praxis: have they changed as Buddhism has spread?
Phenomenology would look at what Buddhists actually do. What of ritual and festival?
Sociological: How does Buddhism work out in people’s lives and their communities? Who is involved? Why? How is leadership played out? Power and social order?
Other approaches might yield different and interesting insights: Political, Anthropological, Feminist, Philosophical, Psychological.
If a Christian engages with a Buddhist, any one of these paths will yield profitable conversation. Christians need to actually talk with Buddhists themselves rather than simply learning about them.1
Estimates vary, but there is broad agreement that around 6% of the world’s population is Buddhist in some sense (between 350 million and 500 million, and maybe up to 1 billion).2 Data can be gathered from censuses, but this only measures a snapshot of self-perception. Buddhism is often mixed with local religions, whether the animism of the hill tribes of Thailand, the original Bön of Tibet, or the Shinto of Japan. Additionally, some countries have Buddhism as the official state religion (Sri Lanka), while for China (by contrast), it is simply unwise, if not impossible, to sift Buddhism from Daoism and Confucianism.
Buddhism in some form is present in over 125 countries. Nevertheless, Asia is its home. A percentage of the population who are Buddhists in each country looks approximately like this: Thailand ~87%; Cambodia ~85%; Bhutan ~84%; Myanmar ~75%; Sri Lanka ~70%; Japan ~56%; Mongolia ~55%; Laos ~53%; Vietnam ~50%; Taiwan ~27%; South Korea ~25%; Macau ~17%; Hong Kong ~15%; Singapore ~15%; Nepal ~12%; Brunei ~10%; Malaysia ~6%; and North Korea ~2%.3 There is also a small but significant population in India (7 million). China, with about 244 million Buddhists, is arguably home of about half the world’s Buddhists.4 Los Angeles, California, is actually the most diverse Buddhist city in the world, with representation of all Buddhist traditions.
Buddhism unsurprisingly ‘looks’ different in each of these countries. Buddhism demonstrates quite some variation between schools/traditions. Some are very textual and doctrinal, some ‘use’ doctrine to a point, and then discard it, and others eschew doctrine altogether. The Buddha himself5 said that his teaching (the dharma) was like a raft used by a person crossing a river. When he had safely reached the other shore, he could discard the raft and continue on his journey.
Many Buddhists approach Buddhism as a practice, rather than a belief. Orthopraxy is often more important than orthodoxy. In early Buddhism, new groups formed due more to issues around monastic discipline, rather than doctrinal heresy. This is in contrast to the first five centuries of Christian history where conflict—and subsequently creeds—were likely to be caused by doctrinal issues.
Buddhism is often more about techniques of doing and ethics for living. The disciple follows a path or way, using a technique towards an end (awakening/enlightenment), such as meditative practice which is claimed to lead to enlightenment, or taking vows of ordination as a monk or nun.
The main idea is to experience what the teachings and texts are offering. Rupert Gethin sums this up well:
‘The aim of Buddhism is to put into practice a particular way of living the ‘spiritual life’ (brahma-cariya) that involves training in ethical conduct (sila) and meditative and contemplative techniques (samadhi) and which culminates in the direct realization of the very knowledge (prajna) the Buddha himself reached. Therefore what the Buddha taught is often referred to in the early texts as a system of ‘training’ (siksa), and his disciples may be referred to as being ‘in training’ (saiksa) . . . Thus in certain important respects the nature of the knowledge that the Buddha was trying to convey to his pupils is more akin to a skill, like knowing how to play a musical instrument, than a piece of information, such as what time the Manchester train leaves tomorrow’.6
Therefore, a Christian wishing to talk with a Buddhist in Vietnam will likely have quite a different type of conversation than talking with a Buddhist in Tibet or in Taiwan—or Los Angeles! It may be wiser not to think of a unified religion called Buddhism, but rather to think of Buddhisms, a collection of loosely related ideas and practices that is informed by a historical and textual tradition.
Zen Buddhism in Japan and Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet ‘feel’ similar, but look very different. A Nepali villager may never have heard of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, let alone articulate them. However, if you read them to her, she might say something like, ‘Oh, that’s more or less the way I see the world.’
The three traditions
Historically and doctrinally there are three broad categories of Buddhism: the Theravadin tradition (or the ‘tradition of the elders’); the Mahayana tradition (‘the greater vehicle’); and the Vajrayana (‘the diamond/adamantine’ vehicle). The Mahayanists look down on the Theravadins, calling them Hinayanists, or the ‘lesser vehicle’. Some scholars would place the Vajrayanists as a subset of the Mahayanists.
These three broad traditions are located geographically:
- Theravada (or ‘southern Buddhism’) is of Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma.
- Mahayana is sometimes called ‘eastern Buddhism’, and includes the Buddhism of China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
- Vajrayana is sometimes called northern Buddhism, and includes Tibet, Mongolia, Buriatia, Tuva, Kalmykia (in Eastern Europe), and Shingon Buddhism (Japan).
Each of these three traditions has sub-traditions. For example:
- Vajrayana (sometimes called Tibetan Buddhism) is comprised of four groups: the Nyingma, the Kagyu, the Sakya, and the Gelug (to which the Dalai Lama belongs).
- Mahayana Buddhism includes (among others) Zen (and Ch’an), Tien Tai, and Pure Land.
- Theravadin Buddhism includes Thai Forest and Insight Meditation.
In addition, some traditions have experienced renewal and re-focusing, and having been exported to the West, have now returned to their Asian homelands. The FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition) is one example: it has gone full circle out of Tibet (informed by the Gelug sect), into Nepal, then into the West, and now has a centre planted back into a Tibetan-Buddhist context, namely Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Other new sects have been birthed more recently: Soka Gakkai, a Japanese ‘Humanist’ Buddhism, has found some momentum in the West for example.
How to engage
When a Christian seeks to engage with Buddhists, it is common experience to feel overwhelmed. The categories are complex, based on fundamental differences in worldview assumptions. Stephen Prothero7 rightly notes that Buddhists and Christians see the problem in the world and the answer to that problem from two completely different angles:
For a Buddhist, the fundamental human problem is suffering, and the solution is awakening, then release from samsara.
For a Christian, the fundamental problem is usually articulated as sin, and the solution is salvation/freedom in Christ.
I would recommend a respectful conversational approach, seeking to listen well so as to clarify meanings, but also being unapologetic about differences. The following conversations may yield fruit for the gospel:
- Praxis: ‘What do you do?’ Meditation, ritual, and ethics. What spiritual disciplines do I have as a Christian that I can talk about?
- Doctrine/Theology: ‘How do you experience the world around you?’ The nature of reality, the nature of deities, and God. Suffering and evil. Do I know my own faith well, especially some of the deeper issues like why a good God allows evil in the world?
- Authority: ‘What is the nature of the texts in your tradition, and the role of the guru/teacher?’ Myths, fables, and wisdom proverbs. What role does the Bible (and the Christian teachers/preachers I listen to) play in my own life, both as an authority, but also as a shaper of my worldview, and my theology
- The ideal person: ‘What does it mean to be an ideal person?’ The arhat (in Theravadin Buddhism), the bodhisattva (in Mahayana/Vajrayana). What does it mean to be ‘made in the image of God’? Am I able, as a Christian to explain the uniqueness of Christ, in both his humanity and divinity? Can I articulate the atonement, resurrection, ascension, and second coming?
- Spiritual power: ‘What/who causes suffering?’ The law of Freedom, enlightenment, and salvation. Spiritual beings. Am I sure in my place ‘in Christ’ to be able prayerfully to enter into ‘spiritual conflict’ with the principalities and powers, if appropriate?
Some claim Buddhism has things in common with Christianity: the heaven/paradise in Pure Land Buddhism is sometimes posed, or ideas like compassion and peace, which are both expounded repeatedly by the Dalai Lama. However, this is superficial. The Pure Land ‘paradise’ is not a reward in itself, but merely a better place to practise the dharma (Buddhist teachings) and where one has a better chance of attaining awakening. The Dalai Lama uses the English words compassion, peace, and harmony to translate Tibetan words which contain quite different meanings.
Some Christian converts out of Buddhism have conceptualised Jesus Christ as the ultimate bodhisattva, who lays down his own life so that others might be freed from karmic bondage and break out of suffering (samsara) into full relationship with God.
If alleged commonalities between Buddhism and Christianity are superficial, Christians involved with mission among Buddhists need also to recognise that, like other religions today, Buddhism is pressured by common global dynamics: it is susceptible to commodification, fundamentalism, and politicization. Sri Lanka and Thailand are examples.
Taking it further
Several evangelical mission agencies prioritise Buddhist people groups, and there are some networks of scholar-practitioners who are thinking and strategizing for work among Buddhists in Asia. A conference held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, each January, brings together Christians to think about mission among Buddhists and share best practices.8 In 2012, a workshop/seminar was held in Bangkok, where academic deans from 15 Asian seminaries and Bible colleges met to re-examine college curricula regarding missional engagement with Buddhists. Should the reader wish to explore mission among Buddhists further, please contact the author at [email protected].
1 Editor’s Note: See ‘Western Buddhism: A new-ish frontier for Christian mission’ by Hugh Kemp in the September 2014 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.
4 However, most (if not all) scholars agree that it is best to think of religion in China as ‘the three’, that is, an indistinguishable mix of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism.
5 The Buddha—or ‘the awakened one’—was a historical person by the name of Siddhartha Gautama, living in northern India, sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries, BC.
6 Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 36.
7 Stephen Prothero, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).
8 This is by invitation only, due to security reasons.
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Prothero, Stephen. God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
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Baker, E. I Once was a Buddhist Nun. Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2009.
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Cioccolanti, S. From Buddha to Jesus: An Insider’s View of Buddhism and Christianity. Oxford: Monarch, 2007.
Gombrich, R F. Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988.
Harvey, P, ed. Buddhism. London: Continuum, 2001.
Lopez, D S. The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to its History and Teachings. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.
Williams, P. The Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism. Edinburgh and New York: T&T Clark, 2002.
Zacharias, R. The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus Talks with Buddha. Oregon: Multnomah Publishers Inc, 2001.