Siddhartha Gautama, a prince from northern India near
modern Nepal who lived about 563–483 B.C.
Various, but the oldest and most authoritative are compiled
in the Pali Canon.
613 million worldwide; 1 million in the United States.
Buddhism is the belief system of those who follow the
Buddha, the Enlightened One, a title given to its founder.
The religion has evolved into three main schools:
1. Theravada or the Doctrine
of the Elders (38%) is followed in Sri Lanka (Ceylon),
Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia (Kampuchea), and
2. Mahayana or the Greater
Vehicle (56%) is strong in China, Korea, and Japan.
3. Vajrayana, also called
Tantrism or Lamaism, (6%) is rooted in Tibet, Nepal,
and Mongolia. Theravada is closest to the original doctrines.
It does not treat the Buddha as deity and regards the
faith as a worldview—not a type of worship. Mahayana
has accommodated many different beliefs and worships
the Buddha as a god. Vajrayana has added elements of
shamanism and the occult and includes taboo breaking
(intentional immorality) as a means of spiritual enlightenment.
IN THE UNITED STATES:
Buddhists regard the United States as a prime mission
field, and the number of Buddhists in this country is
growing rapidly due to surges in Asian immigration,
endorsement by celebrities such as Tina Turner and Richard
Gere, and positive exposure in major movies such as
Siddhartha, The Little Buddha, and What’s Love
Got to Do with It? Buddhism is closely related to the
New Age Movement and may to some extent be driving it.
Certainly Buddhist growth is benefiting from the influence
of New Age thought on American life.
Buddhism was founded as a form of atheism that rejected
more ancient beliefs in a permanent, personal, creator
God (Ishvara) who controlled the eternal destiny of
human souls. Siddhartha Gautama rejected more ancient
theistic beliefs because of difficulty he had over reconciling
the reality of suffering, judgment, and evil with the
existence of a good and holy God.
Buddhism is an impersonal religion of self-perfection,
the end of which is death (extinction)—not life.
The essential elements of the Buddhist belief system
are summarized in the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold
Path, and several additional key doctrines. The Four
Noble Truths affirm that (1) life is full of suffering
(dukkha); (2) suffering is caused by craving (samudaya);
(3) suffering will cease only when craving ceases (nirodha);
and (4) this can be achieved by following the Noble
Eightfold Path consisting of right views, right aspiration,
right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right
effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation.
Other key doctrines include belief that nothing in life
is permanent (anicca), that individual selves do not
truly exist (anatta), that all is determined by an impersonal
law of moral causation (karma), that reincarnation is
an endless cycle of continuous suffering, and that the
goal of life is to break out of this cycle by finally
extinguishing the flame of life and entering a permanent
state of pure nonexistence (nirvana).
BRIDGES FOR EVANGELIZING BUDDHISTS
The gospel can be appealing to Buddhists if witnessing
focuses on areas of personal need where the Buddhist
belief system is weak. Some major areas include:
Suffering: Buddhists are
deeply concerned with overcoming suffering but must
deny that suffering is real. Christ faced the reality
of suffering and overcame it by solving the problem
of sin, which is the real source of suffering. Now,
those who trust in Christ can rise above suffering in
this life because they have hope of a future life free
of suffering. "We fix our eyes not on what is seen
[suffering], but on what is unseen [eternal life free
of suffering]. For what is seen [suffering] is temporary,
but what is unseen [future good life with Christ] is
eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18, NIV).
Meaningful Self: Buddhists
must work to convince themselves they have no personal
signifi- cance, even though they live daily as though
they do. Jesus taught that each person has real significance.
Each person is made in God’s image with an immortal
soul and an eternal destiny. Jesus demonstrated the
value of people by loving us so much that He sacrificed
His life in order to offer eternal future good life
to anyone who trusts Him. "God demonstrates his
own love for us in this: While we were still sinners,
Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8, NIV). Future Hope:
The hope of nirvana is no hope at all—only death
and extinction. The hope of those who put their trust
in Christ is eternal good life in a "new heaven
and new earth" in which God "will wipe every
tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or
mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things
[suffering] has passed [will pass] away" (Rev.
21:4, NIV). Moral Law: Because karma, the Buddhist law
of moral cause and effect, is completely rigid and impersonal,
life for a Buddhist is very oppressive. Under karma,
there can be no appeal, no mercy, and no escape except
through unceasing effort at self- refection. Christians
understand that the moral force governing the universe
is a personal God who listens to those who pray, who
has mercy on those who repent, and who with love personally
controls for good the lives of those who follow Christ.
"In all things God works for the good of those
who love him" (Rom. 8:28, NIV). Merit: Buddhists
constantly struggle to earn merit by doing good deeds,
hoping to collect enough to break free from the life
of suffering. They also believe saints can transfer
surplus merit to the undeserving. Jesus taught no one
can ever collect enough merit on his own to earn everlasting
freedom from suffering. Instead, Jesus Christ, who has
unlimited merit (righteousness) by virtue of His sinless
life, meritorious death, and resurrection, now offers
His unlimited merit as a free gift to anyone who will
become His disciple. "For it is by grace you have
been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves,
it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no
one can boast" (Eph. 2:8–9, NIV). Desire:
Buddhists live a contradiction—they seek to overcome
suffering by rooting out desire, but at the same time
they cultivate desire for self- ontrol, meritorious
life, and nirvana. Christians are consistent—we
seek to reject evil desires and cultivate good desires
according to the standard of Christ. "Flee the
evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith,
love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord
out of a pure heart" (2 Tim. 2:22, NIV).
AND THE EIGHTFOLD PATH
Because Buddhists think a good life consists of following
the Eightfold Path, the stages of the path can be used
to introduce them to Christ as follows:
Right views: Jesus is the
way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and there
is salvation in no one else (Acts 4:12). Right aspiration:
Fights and quarrels come from selfish desires and wrong
motives (Jas. 4:1–3); right desires and motives
honor God (1 Cor. 10:31).
Right speech: A day of judgment
is coming when God will hold men accountable for every
careless word they have spoken (Matt. 12:36). Right
conduct: The one who loves Jesus must obey Him (John
14:21), and those who live by God’s wisdom will
produce good acts/fruit (Jas. 3:17).
Right livelihood: God will
care for those who put Him first (Matt. 6:31,33), and
all work must be done for God’s approval (2 Tim.
2:15). Right effort: Like runners in a race, followers
of Christ must throw off every hindrance in order to
give Him their best efforts (Heb. 12:1–2).
Right mindfulness: The sinful
mind cannot submit to God’s law (Rom. 8:7), and
disciples of Christ must orient their minds as He did
Right contemplation: The
secret of true success, inner peace, self-control, and
lasting salvation is submission to Jesus Christ as Savior
and Lord and setting your heart and mind on things above
where He now sits in glory waiting to bring the present
order of sin and suffering to an end (Col. 3:1–4).
WHEN WITNESSING TO BUDDHISTS
1. Avoid terms such as "new
birth," "rebirth," "regeneration,"
or "born again." Use alternatives such as
"endless freedom from suffering, guilt, and sin,"
"new power for living a holy life," "promise
of eternal good life without suffering," or "gift
of unlimited merit."
2. Emphasize the uniqueness
of Christ. 3. Focus on the gospel message and do not
get distracted by details of Buddhist doctrine.
4. Understand Buddhist beliefs
enough to discern weaknesses that can be used to make
the gospel appealing (see "Bridges for Evangelizing
Buddhists" and "Jesus and the Eightfold Path").
5. While using bridge concepts
(see "Bridges for Evangelizing Buddhists"),
be careful not to reduce Christian truth to a form of
Buddhism. Buddhism has been good at accommodating other
religions. Do not say "Buddhism is good, but Christianity
6. Share your own testimony,
especially your freedom from guilt, assurance of heaven
(no more pain), and personal relationship with Christ.
7. Prepare with prayer.
Do not witness in your own strength.
Daniel R. Heimbach, Associate Professor
of Christian Ethics, Southeastern Baptist Theological
Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C. Copyright 1996 North American
Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, Alpharetta,
Georgia. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.