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Buddhism in Asia: How Can Christians Engage?

By Hugh Kemp

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission. To receive this free bimonthly publication from the Lausanne Movement, subscribe online at lausanne.org/analysis. We're highlighting the article because, for NZCMS to focus more purposefully on Asia, we need to better understand Buddhism.

 

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.

Challenges 

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.

Approaches

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.

Buddhism worldwide

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). 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%. 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. Los Angeles, California, is actually the most diverse Buddhist city in the world, with representation of all Buddhist traditions.

Practice 

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 himself 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’.

Buddhisms

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.’

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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 Prothero 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.

 

To continue reading and to get some practical advice about engaging with Buddhists click here.