Launching Movements among Buddhists:
Case Studies of Best Practices
– By Steve Parlato –
Edited from a video for Global Assembly of Pastors for Finishing the Task
Part 1: The History and the Challenge
My mission agency, Beyond, is part of a global network called 24:14 which seeks to catalyze movements in every people group and place of the world. I’d like to share with you some of the issues in catalyzing disciple-making movements among Buddhists. Two centuries of Protestant mission work have brought only minimal progress among Buddhists. Buddhism has seen the least response to the gospel of any major world religion. If just sharing Jesus with Buddhists has been met with such little response, catalyzing a disciple-making movement among Buddhists seems even more elusive. My perspective comes out of my own efforts through 30 years of making disciples among Buddhist people, and from case studies of others who have done this as well. I hope I can help you become better equipped at making disciples among Buddhists and catalyzing disciple-making movements.
Many Buddhists are genuine spiritual seekers. So why wouldn’t Buddhists embrace the truth of Jesus? I can give you at least five reasons for the slow uptake.
First, Buddhist and Christian teaching are very different. There’s nothing we can do about that.
Second is a failure on the part of Christians to contextualize the message. In many cases, we’ve gotten the words right, but have failed to communicate meaning.
Third, Christians have tended to use Western methods and have planted churches following Western structures. Among Southeast Asian peoples, Buddhist identity is wrapped up in their ethnicity or national identity. For example, to be “Bamar” is to be Buddhist; to be Thai is to be Buddhist. This makes it awkward for Buddhist-background believers to be incorporated into a primarily Western church structure.
A fourth reason is a failure to use biblical movement-friendly practices in discipleship and church planting.
Lastly, there are some specific spiritual warfare issues in reaching Buddhists, and many cross-cultural workers have not been entirely prepared for those challenges. Except for the first point, the great difference between Buddhist and Christian teaching, we as messengers of Christ can do something about the other points.
CONTRAST OF BUDDHIST AND CHRISTIAN THINKING
Let’s take a look at Buddhist thinking and see how it differs from Christian thinking. First, for a Buddhist, there is no God. No God to be accountable to, no God to offend. But there’s also no God to have a relationship with. There’s no divine source out there to help you on the journey of life. You’re entirely on your own to make merit: to do good or do evil. The practice of Buddhism is entirely your personal liberation journey. Second, Buddhists believe in karma. Karma simply means actions. However, when most Westerners use the word “karma,” what they actually mean is the law of karma. The law of karma is a summary of both one’s good and bad actions. The law of karma is an impersonal force which determines the course of a person’s life and all future lives.
A third difficulty is that Buddhism readily mixes with other beliefs. It even brings in beliefs from other religions that are contradictory to its own system, forming a mixed folk Buddhism. Christianity has a written orthodoxy. A biblically defined faith and practice oppose syncretism.
HISTORICAL SPREAD OF BUDDHISM AND SYNCRETISM
India was the birthplace of Buddhism, about 2560 years ago. But it wasn’t until much later, during the reign of the Indian emperor Ashoka (268 to 232 BC) that Buddhist missionaries were sent out around the world. The spread of Buddhism illustrates how it syncretized with existing beliefs.
Buddhist missionaries went to Central Asia: places like Pakistan and Iran where they started a version of Mahayana Buddhism. Nowadays, Buddhism only remains in this region in archaeological digs. When Buddhism entered China it overlaid onto Taoist philosophy and ancestor worship. Buddhist missionaries who went to Sri Lanka started the Theravada school of Buddhism. The Theravada school were the first to write down the teachings of Buddha, about 30 AD. The first Theravada school temple was started in Myanmar in 228 BC. The Theravada school spread from Sri Lanka to Thailand, Cambodia and then to Laos. Lastly, Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries into Nepal, who then went on to Bhutan, Tibet, Mongolia and up into the Buryat peoples in Siberia. Buddhism in these regions overlaid itself onto the animistic Bon religion. This resulted in the Vajrayana or Tibetan school of Buddhism.
As Buddhism spread historically, it acted as an overlay on the pre-existing culture, philosophy and religion of various area. Like a cloth, it took on the landscape of philosophies that existed when it came. As in this picture, you know there’s a chair underneath the cloth. Because Buddhism readily incorporates all beliefs into its system, it is difficult for Buddhists to accept any fixed exclusive claims of Christianity.
Here is a personal example. I shared Christ over a two-year period with a Thai policeman who was a good friend of mine. One day he came to me and said, “Hey Steve, I’m a Christian like you now.”
Being a little more than skeptical I asked, “What do you mean by that?”
He pulled out his necklace, filled with amulets and talismans, and said, “See, here I’ve tied on the cross and now it’s one of my protective spiritual amulets.”
So you can see how easily a Buddhist can say: “Oh, I believe that,” but really all they’ve done is syncretized some of what you’ve said into what they already believe.
PROBLEM OF APOLEGETICS
When Christian missionaries first witnessed to Buddhists, they took an apologetic approach. They attacked logical inconsistencies in the Buddhist system, hoping to win Buddhists over to a more cohesive and (as some would argue) logical set of truth. For example, a missionary might argue: “You Buddhists believe in reincarnation but then you also say that people are nothingness (anata). So if my ultimate reality is nothingness, then what’s being reincarnated into the next life?” Missionaries would try to find what seemed to be logical fallacies in the system, then present Christ as the better system. This has been a massive failure throughout history, and almost always led to conflicts.
Cristianity and Buddhism. Sinclaire Thompson Memorial Lectures, fifth series. Chiang Mai Thailand.
In the 1960s, a number of interfaith dialogues took place between Buddhists and Christians in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Much of those dialogues were apologetic presentations. After those Buddhist-Christian dialogues, a very famous Thai monk of the time wrote a book to explain Christianity to Buddhists. In it he said that God is ignorance (avijjā)
and that God is the source of the broken world of suffering that we are caught in. Very clearly, even after dialogue between Christian and Buddhist scholars, massive misunderstanding remained concerning the most basic concept: Who is God? and What is the source of suffering?
So let’s take a look at the worldview of Buddhists to further understand the vast difference between Buddhist and Christian thinking. The Thervada Buddhist worldview has seven levels of heaven and different levels of hell. Here on earth, Gautama was born as a prince in the 6th century BC and at age 29 he left his protected palace life to go on a journey to seek spiritual truth. Gautama noticed that we live in a world of suffering. Specifically he noticed that people are born, then as their life proceeds they get old. He next observed that people get sick. They face various kinds of illnesses, then as their life goes on they die. He didn’t stop there; he also said that people, after they die, are born into another life. That is, they are reincarnated. This whole system is called samsara. Samsara simply means wandering. People are caught in this cycle of being born, getting old, getting sick, and dying. Reincarnated, around and around, wandering, like lost souls caught in an endless cycle. So you may have a life here on this earth and maybe it doesn’t go so well. It’s discovered that you’re an adulterer so you have to go down to hell, a hell specifically set up for adulterers. Maybe things go well for you as you live out a lifetime in hell, then you’re born back as a person on this earth again. You get old, you get sick, you die. Maybe things go well and you make it up to one of the levels of heaven, then back down to earth, then up to a higher level of heaven, then maybe back down to earth, then back down to hell. This cycle could carry on for potentially thousands of lifetimes.
So we can see that Buddhists have their own concept of eternal life. It is sadly an eternal life of suffering. The goal in Buddhism is to break out of this cycle of suffering, to somehow escape out of it to a place where there is no suffering. Given the many traditions of Buddhism in the world, you might get very different explanations what nirvana means. Some will explain it’s like a drop of water that flows back into the sea, losing its identity. Others will say it’s the golden celestial city and a place of great joy. But one thing is similar in all the traditions of Buddhism: nirvana is a place with no suffering.
The Buddhist worldview can be summarized in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The first noble truth is that all of life is suffering (tuk). From birth, to getting old, the process of dying, and everything in the middle: it’s all suffering. The source of suffering, the second noble truth, is desire – like internal lust from inside (thunha). The third noble truth is that there is a way out of suffering (nirot). The fourth noble truth is that if people want to break out of this cycle of suffering, they need to perfectly live out the Eightfold Path (mak).
Buddha discovered the Eightfold Path. Each of these eight paths are described with the word “right,” like “right understanding.” But the word “right” could also be translated “perfect” or “complete.” So if you have the perfect or right understanding, then you have the perfectly correct view of reality. The second pathway is having right intent: That is you have a complete or perfect commitment to the path. Third, you have right or perfect speech: you have total care with all your words all the time. Fourth, you have right or perfect actions: you live a completely moral life. Christians and Buddhists find many similarities in right speech and right action. Fifth, you have the right livelihood. The profession you choose needs to respect all life. For example, a good Buddhist cannot be a butcher, nor could they manufacture and sell weapons. Sixth is right effort: being steady and cheerful in all things. Seventh, you have right or perfect mindfulness: perfect awareness, able to live in the moment perfectly. The final pathway is right concentration: you have a perfect and focused life of meditation. If somehow you could do all eight pathways perfectly, you may experience enlightenment.
The Mahayana school holds a belief in reincarnated Buddhas. Buddhas are people who have reached enlightenment and then are reborn on this earth for the specific task of helping certain people along, to succeed in their journey. In the Theravada school, there are no reincarnated Buddhas; each individual is entirely on their own to do this. These are some of the huge differences in the teaching of Christians and Buddhists.
Now in comes the Christian messenger and things are exceedingly ripe for misunderstanding. Let’s take the most simple, seemingly safe explanation of the gospel: John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever should believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life.” Virtually every word in that sentence will need additional explanation if your Buddhist friend is going to understand its meaning. You may get the words right, but you still need to get the meaning across.
First of all, they believe there is no God. So if you say “God so loved the world,” your Buddhist friend is already suspicious of you; you’re deluded because there is no god. And if God loves the world (all the people in the world), he must have desire. Therefore this god is caught in the samsara cycle; he’s caught in the cycle of death and birth and rebirth. “Whosoever believes,” so you’re saying that through faith one can be saved. But for the Buddhists, it’s all about what you do; religion is all about the practices and things you do. So there’s already a disagreement: it is not through faith; only self-effort can save. “Will have everlasting life”: in their mind that means samsara. They think: “I don’t want that. As a Buddhist, I’m trying to get out of the eternal cycle (samsara) of suffering. So why would I follow Jesus, to just be caught in the cycle of birth, aging and dying?”
None of them will tell you all that analysis out loud. All you’ll hear is, “It’s irrelevant.” Or something like, “All religions teach people to be good,” which means “I’ve got my religion; you’ve got yours. Yours is irrelevant; I don’t need that. End of discussion.” Buddhists are very tolerant, so they may politely say, “Yes, Jesus is good and we’re all exactly the same,” but they can’t see any unique claim there. The whole conversation is dismissed as irrelevant.
This gulf between Buddhist and Christian teachings and worldview has been one of the major contributing factors to little response to the gospel among Buddhists. But in our day, the Lord has allowed his children to discover some tools that can help bridge the gulf. We will look at those in Part 2 of this case study.