In this session of Secret Church 16, David Platt encourages Christians to share the gospel with Buddhists by providing them with an overview of Buddhism. In this session, he deals with Buddhism, a religion with over 250 million people from 62 countries. Of the 354 people groups that are Buddhist, 296 of them are labeled as unreached with the gospel. In response to sin and suffering, Siddhartha Gautama, Buddhism’s founder, claimed to find Enlightenment while meditating, and he taught others this path until his death.
The two primary schools of Buddhism are Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, and Buddhists have a variety of sacred texts. In fact, Buddhism is often mixed with atheism or animism. Buddhists believe that suffering is the main problem for man and that it can only be overcome by getting rid of selfish desire through the Eight-Fold Path. Salvation for Buddhists is a matter of self-effort. In this session, David Platt offers suggestions for sharing the gospel with Buddhists, including questions to ask in order to transition into a gospel conversation.
Buddhism is the religion of over 250 million people in 62 countries, with 350 people groups—most of whom are still unreached by the gospel.
There are three myths about Buddhists. One is that all Buddhists are vegetarians. This is true of some Buddhists and is emphasized in some streams of Buddhism. As we’re going to see, this is primarily because one of the precepts of Buddhism is not to kill another creature. Some have taken this to mean that we shouldn’t kill animals to eat them. But tradition has it that even the Buddha himself was not a vegetarian. He didn’t forbid his followers from eating certain kinds of meats. So, some Buddhists are vegetarians, but not all of them.
The second myth is that all Buddhists do is meditate all the time. We sometimes have a picture of a Buddhist sitting with legs crossed, arms at his side, eyes closed, meditating. We’re going to see that meditation is important in Buddhism, but we’ll also see there’s a lot more to Buddhism than meditation.
One final myth is that all Buddhists wear robes. Yes, Buddhist monks wear robes—which by the way are much more elaborate than just a piece of cloth. The monastic robes are intricately designed to be personally versatile for those who are wearing them. But that’s just for monastic robes. Not every Buddhist wears them. So Buddhists wear suits and ties and dresses to work and all sorts of other normal clothing that anyone would wear.
What Do Buddhists Believe? Who are Buddhists?
Simply put, Buddhists are followers of Buddha. That was worth your admission fee today, right? You didn’t see that one coming, did you?
Buddha was a real person in history and here’s a bit of his history. Hopefully following on the heels of Hinduism this will help put Buddhism in a historical perspective. Remember the Vedas, the sacred writings of Hinduism, were compiled over the course of over a thousand years, from 1800-500 B.C. Well, right about the end of that time, Siddhartha Gautama was born as a Hindu prince from northern India, which is modern Nepal. He lived from approximately 563 to 483 B.C.
Tradition has it that when he was born, a seer prophesied that he would become the greatest ruler in human history. The seer added that if he ever saw four things—sickness, old age, death, and a monk who had renounced the world—the boy would give up his earthly rule and discover a way of salvation for mankind. Tradition says that in order to protect his son from seeing some of those things, his father built him a palace and gave orders that the sick or the old or the dead or a monk would never be allowed near there.
So he grew up protected from the world. He married a beautiful girl and they had a son together. One day, as he rode through the park that surrounded his palace, he saw a man who was covered with sores, a man who tottered with age, a corpse being carried to its grave, and a begging monk who appeared to be peaceful and happy. So at age 29, when he was exposed to the suffering around him, he decided to leave behind his wealth and his wife and son, never to see them again, and left the palace.
He went off alone in search of salvation. He longed to find two things: first, the cause of suffering; and second, the cure for suffering. Which, when you think about it, are two pretty important things to find. He looked for fulfillment of these longings first and foremost in Hinduism—the faith in which he had grown up. He read the Vedas and studied Hindu teachings, but he couldn’t find fulfillment in them. And he looked for fulfillment through asceticism, which is basically self-denial. But that didn’t bring him what he was looking for either.
His quest continued, and after six years he found enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree. Thus his name became “Buddha,” which means enlightened one. Tradition has it that he sat under a tree and determined not to move until he found what he was looking for. And he did. He experienced enlightenment—or nirvana, freedom from suffering—through freedom from desire, which we’re going to talk about in a minute. He subsequently taught others the path to enlightenment until his death—and Buddhism was born.
As the Buddhist teachings began to spread, two primary schools of Buddhism developed: Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. Most Buddhists today adhere to one or the other of these schools.
Theravada Buddhism makes up approximately 38% of Buddhists and is practiced mainly in southern Asia. The key difference between the two schools is that Theravada Buddhists view Buddha as an earthly sage, a wise teacher, whose sayings should be taught and followed by all Buddhists. But ultimately enlightenment is available only to the few, namely the monks, after many reincarnations. So much like Hinduism, Buddhists believe in reincarnation, the goal of which is enlightenment. That’s only possible, according to Theravada Buddhists, for those who eventually become Buddhist monks and give themselves more fully to meditation and observance of the Buddhist teachings.
On the other hand, Mahayana Buddhism is believed by approximately 56% of Buddhists and is practiced mainly in eastern Asia—China, Japan, and Korea. Mahayana Buddhists view Buddha as an eternal savior, along with other gods like him who have achieved enlightenment and now help others. As people follow the Buddha—and we’ll talk about this more in a minute—he will lead them to enlightenment. In this school of Buddhist thought, enlightenment is available to the many now. Which likely has something to do with the fact that there are more Mahayana Buddhists than there are Theravada Buddhists.
For the mathematicians in the audience who are thinking 38% plus 56% don’t equal 100%, you are right. You’re sharp late at night. There are other smaller schools of Buddhism, including Tibetan, Zen and New Age Buddhism. So you have Buddhism in general, but the believers fall into different schools of thought based on the Buddha’s original teachings, and it all revolves around how they view the Buddha.
Buddha’s teachings are compiled into various texts. You have the Pali Canon, which is one of the earliest compilations of Buddhist teachings. It’s been added to along the way, and contains over 50 volumes. So think of writings ten times larger than the Bible. Then you have a collection of Buddha’s life and story, the Sutras—which are considered to be the actual sayings of Buddha compiled together—and the Tantras are advanced practices based on the Sutras.
What Do Buddhists Believe?
So what do those texts teach? What do Buddhists believe? The answer to that question leads fundamentally to Four Noble Truths and an Eightfold Path.
Four Noble Truths
These are the essential elements of Buddhist belief.
- Dukkha, which means “All of life is suffering.” This is the truth—all of life is suffering. Basically it means life is not right. Something is wrong, from start to finish. You look at the trauma of birth, the pathology of sickness, the inevitability of fear—ultimately the fear of death. Along the way attachment to what one dislikes, separation from what one loves—life is marked by all these things. It’s the problem with life in this world. All of life is suffering.
- Samudaya, which says the cause of suffering is selfish desire. Tanha is selfish desire, desire that it rooted in one’s self. Specifically, it’s the desire to please one’s self, to experience personal, private fulfillment. We suffer—why? Because we desire health and wealth and status and comfort and this and that. We can’t have all these things, which leads to suffering. So the cause of suffering is selfish desire.
The problem, however, is that individual selves do not exist. There is no self. Nothing in life is permanent; everything in life is changing. Our minds, our bodies, our feelings, our wills are always changing. And ourselves are the combination of those things. Because those things are constantly changing, therefore we are all in an endless cycle of selfish desire that causes suffering, where the law of karma reigns.
We saw this in Hinduism, and here it’s transported into Buddhist thought. Karma is an impersonal and unavoidable law that works like gravity. What goes up must come down. Do good, and good will come back to you. Do evil, and evil will come back to you. So we’re all caught up in an endless cycle of selfish desire that causes suffering where the law of karma reigns and in which we experience constant reincarnations—which again is what we saw in Hinduism. But here in Buddhism, reincarnations are seen as part of an endless cycle of continual suffering due to selfish desire.
- That leads to the third Noble Truth, Nirodha, or the cure for suffering. So what is the cure? The cure for suffering is overcoming selfish desire. Since to live is to suffer, and suffering is caused by desiring and craving things for ourselves, then the elimination of selfish desire will inevitably lead to the end of suffering. Eliminate the desire for things for ourselves, and you’ll eliminate suffering. Which then leads to the question: how do you overcome selfish desire?
- The Buddhist answer is Noble Truth number four. The only way to overcome desire is by following the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths lead to an Eightfold Path that you walk to overcome desire for things for yourself—ultimately to reach enlightenment and escape from the endless cycle of suffering.
The Eightfold Path
- This path is marked first by right views. One needs a right understanding of what reality is—not just what it appears to be. We need a right view of the world and the problem in it—specifically the problem of suffering and how to solve it. It’s the understanding of reality as it is—not just as it appears to be.
- We need right intent. We need to be focused on pursuing liberation from this endless cycle of suffering—a deliberate pursuit of enlightenment. We’re not content with just continuing. We’re intentional about pursing liberation.
- We then must practice right speech, which is honest and helpful speech. We speak truth. We speak encouragement. We don’t hurt with our speech. We don’t even exaggerate with our speech. We’re completely honest and helpful in our speech.
- This is followed by right conduct, which is wholesome action that avoids harm toward others or ourselves. Just as our words should be helpful, our works should be helpful. And in Buddhism there are five particular precepts. Think of the second half of the Ten Commandments in the Bible—the more ethical commandments dealing with our everyday relationships. The five Buddhist precepts are these:
- Abstain from harming living beings. This is where some would go to becoming a vegetarian, because to kill an animal to eat it is to harm another living being. But again, not all Buddhists would take that step.
- Abstain from stealing.
- Abstain from false speech. Don’t lie. Don’t gossip.
- Abstain from sexual misconduct, which is why Buddhist monks, for example, would be celibate, abstaining from sex altogether.
- Abstain from intoxicating drinks and drugs.
So these are five precepts in Buddhism that govern right conduct. And they’re supplemented by four virtues: friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy and even-mindedness even in the middle of whatever this life brings.
- The next part of the Eightfold Path is right livelihood, which is an occupation or job which promotes life instead of destroying it. You need an occupation that doesn’t harm others or yourself, either directly or indirectly.
- Next is right effort. So not just in your occupation, but in your life, you should work diligently toward improvement. As with right intent, you are focused on liberation and you have effort that matches your intent. You’re working toward the pursuit of liberation.
- Then comes right mindfulness. The Buddha taught, “All we are is the result of all we have thought.” So we must work to develop a clear consciousness, the ability to see things rightly for what they are. Someone described the life of a Buddhist monk in Thailand as follows:
One of them spends hours each day slowly walking about the grounds of the wat in absolute concentration upon the minutest fraction of every action connected with each step. The procedure is carried into every single physical act of daily life until, theoretically, the conscious mind can follow every step that goes into the generation of a feeling, perception, or thought. A fifty-year-old monk meditates in a small graveyard adjoining his wat, because he’s undisturbed there. He seats himself, cross-legged and immobile but with his eyes open, for hours on end—through the driving rain at midnight or the blistering heat of noonday. His usual length of stay is two or three hours.
So he’s working toward clear consciousness.
- Finally, right concentration, which is a focused awareness of present reality accompanied by freedom from desire. That’s what everything is going toward. This kind of concentration is accomplished through meditation, which uses mantras (ritual formulas and sounds), mudras (physical postures and hand gestures), and mandalas (diagrams, pictures that are often circular) to help you focus on reality, free you from desire and to clear your mind from all else.
Listen to this quote from one Buddhist teacher—actually, the first Western woman to become a Theravada Buddhist nun: “The great renunciation that arises in meditation is to drop all thoughts. When there’s nobody thinking, there’s no ego confirmation.” And that’s what you’re after.
What Do Buddhists Believe and what is Enlightenment?
When these eight paths are accomplished, one gets a taste of enlightenment, or nirvana—which is the goal. Liberation from all suffering—that’s what it’s all about. Buddha said, “One thing I teach: suffering and the end of suffering. It is just ill and the ceasing of ill that I proclaim.” He also said:
There is a sphere which is neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor air, which is not the sphere of the infinity of space, nor the sphere of the infinity of consciousness, the sphere of perception, or non-perception, which is neither this world, neither sun nor moon, I deny that it is coming or going, enduring death or birth. It is only the end of suffering.
So that’s what they are after. That’s the sphere they are all trying to get to. And that sphere involves the annihilation of the illusion of self. And that wording is key. So one prominent Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka said, “Nirvana is definitely no annihilation of self, because there is no self to annihilate. If at all, it is the annihilation of the illusion, of the false idea of self.”
Again, you see the influence of Hinduism here. This would be annihilation of self—but there’s no self to annihilate. Self is just an illusion anyway. Enlightenment is the spiritual realization of that, and consequently absorption into reality. So this is how nirvana is summarized:
Nirvana is permanent, stable, imperishable, immovable, ageless, deathless, unborn and unbecome. It is power, bliss and happiness, the secure refuge, the shelter, and the place of unassailable safety. It is the real Truth and the supreme Reality. It is the Good, the supreme goal and the one and only consummation of our life, the eternal, hidden and incomprehensible Peace.
Inner peace. We often think that’s what we’re after—the supreme reality in which we’re absorbed based on belief in the Four Noble Truths that come through following the Eightfold Path.
Salvation through Self-Effort
In this way, Buddhism explicitly teaches salvation through self-effort. These are things you must do to attain enlightenment and nobody else can do them for you. The Buddha taught, “Those who, relying upon themselves only, shall not look for assistance to anyone besides themselves, it is they who, shall reach the topmost height.”
A Buddhist folk song says:
By ourselves is evil done,
By ourselves we pain endure,
By ourselves we cease from wrong,
By ourselves become we pure.
No one saves us but ourselves,
No one can and no one may;
We ourselves must tread the Path:
Buddhas only show the way.
Salvation through self-effort.
Buddhist Belief is often Mixed with other Beliefs
One other note I want to include here, because I think it’s important. Buddhist belief is often mixed with other beliefs, including atheism. So in a sense, Buddhism was founded as a form of atheism, rejecting the more ancient Hindu beliefs in a creator God—or other gods, for that matter. Buddha couldn’t reconcile the existence of a good God with the reality of suffering in the world, so he rejected some of the theistic notions of Hinduism.
In addition, some Buddhism (in some schools of thought more than others), overlaps with Animism—including ancestor worship, particularly when it comes to some of the tantras, some of the practices taught by different Buddhist teachers. Again, that’s no surprise, because many of the places where Buddhism spread were initially among Animistic peoples, and there was a lot of intermixing as a result.
How Do We Share the Gospel With Buddhists?
Hopefully seeing Hinduism and now Buddhism in historical order can help us see some of the relationships between the two. But how do we share the gospel with Buddhists? Here are some thoughts on building bridges to the gospel from a Buddhist worldview, from Buddhist shoes.
Recognize there are Superficial Similarities
First, recognize that there are superficial similarities. I emphasize superficial here, because even in that which looks similar, there are significant differences. So just because a Buddhist and a Christian are using the same term doesn’t mean they’re using the same dictionary. But as a starting point, I think it’s helpful to recognize the closest potential for similarities, at least superficially.
For example, both the gospel and Buddhism address an honest realization of suffering in this world. There is suffering in this world, and neither the gospel nor Buddhism shy away from that. In addition, both the gospel and Buddhism lead to ethical exhortations for life in this world. You can take the Eightfold Path and think about ethical instructions in the Bible regarding most of them.
- Conduct: “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22).
- Right views: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
- Right intent: This gets to our motives: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
- Right speech:“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36).
- Right conduct: “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21).
- Right livelihood: Followers of Christ should “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23).
- Right effort: “ . . . let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
- Right mindfulness: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
- Right concentration: “Set your minds on things that are above” (Colossian 3:2)
- And then regarding compassion, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
Realize there are Substantial Differences
Now, again, what the Bible means by these things and what Buddhism means by these things are very different, but there are superficial similarities. Recognize those, while at the same time realizing there are substantial differences.
Think about these substantial differences concerning God. Buddhism at its core denies the existence of a personal Creator-God. Theravada Buddhism is agnostic, if not atheistic. So it either completely denies the existence of a personal Creator-God, or says and believes nothing about the existence of a personal Creator-God. Then Mahayana Buddhism acknowledges numerous different saviors who can lead to enlightenment, and in this sense they are god-like. But again, at the core Buddhism denies the existence of a personal Creator-God. The first words of the Bible, on the other hand, are, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).
In place of God, what does Buddhism put? Man. Man’s position, according to Buddhism, is supreme. Man is his own master. There’s no higher being or power that sits in judgment over his destiny. So that’s massively different from the gospel, in which Christianity affirms the existence, obviously, of a personal Creator-God in the first verse of the Bible.
Concerning man, Buddhism denies the existence of the soul. Christianity affirms the existence of the soul. “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Buddhism teaches the illusion of the self—not just the soul, but the self. Christianity teaches the importance of the self, as a man or woman is created in the image of God with the capacity to know God. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Christianity and Buddhism have fundamentally different views of man.
Concerning Jesus, some Buddhists might believe Jesus is an enlightened master. That would obviously be someone who didn’t understand the teachings of Jesus, but it might be possible to perceive Jesus as an enlightened master. But that is not who the gospel teaches Jesus is. Christians believe Jesus is the eternal Son, God in the flesh, unlike any other.
Then, concerning sin and salvation, Buddhism teaches that self-reliance is the path to salvation. Trust in yourself; work yourself to get to enlightenment. The gospel teaches the exact opposite. Christianity teaches self-reliance is not the path to salvation. Rather, the gospel teaches that self-reliance is the essence of sin. “In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 10:4). That’s Buddhism, described as pridefully emptying his thoughts of God altogether.
Buddhism teaches salvation through work. Follow this Eightfold Path. Keep these Five Precepts. Display these Four Virtues. And on and on. Christianity is radically different. Christianity teaches salvation through faith (Ephesians 2:8).
See where it all ends up. Buddhism’s goal is the ultimate elimination of our desires. That’s enlightenment—the elimination of desire. The gospel has an entirely different goal. Christianity’s goal is the ultimate satisfaction of our desires. “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst’” (John 6:35). He says, “I won’t take your desires away; I’ll satisfy all your desires.” That’s huge.
Then concerning eternity, Buddhism teaches perpetual reincarnation, whereas Christianity teaches final resurrection.
So needless to say, there are superficial similarities but substantial differences. So what does that mean we do then?
Be Wise in your Language
Proverbs gives us warnings about foolishness of language.
“The tongue of the wise commends knowledge,
but the mouths of fools pour out folly.” (Proverbs 15:2; see also Proverbs 10:14).
When we’re talking to Buddhists about the gospel, we need to be careful when it comes to meaning. God is not the same as the eternal Buddha. Sin is not just bad karma or ignorance.
If you’re in a conversation with a Buddhist and you try to explain sin by saying, “It’s kind of like karma,” right there you have to be careful. Karma means a lot of things to a Buddhist that you and I don’t mean about sin. In the same way, salvation is not liberation from the self. Eternal life is not nirvana. If we’re not clear what we mean when we use words like this, they’ll apply Buddhist dictionaries to biblical words, and the result will be total syncretism—the blending of faiths. It is totally unbiblical, deceptive and dangerous. Think about the term “born again” in Buddhism. That’s a bad thing that happens over and over and over again. In the Bible, to be born again is good. We want to be born again. We have to be clear about what that means.
So be careful when it comes to meaning, and be conversational when it comes to understanding. In other words, don’t assume you’re on the same page. Keep talking, conversing, discussing, and clarifying until you come to an understanding. Ask questions. Think about questions to ask. Again this can build bridges to conversations about the gospel.
For example, “How do you free yourself from bad karma?” Listen and understand, then think about ways to cross the bridge. “Can I share with you one verse in the Bible that explains how everyone in the world can have all their bad deeds forgiven?” Then go to Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Ask, “Do you know what will happen to you after you die?” Listen, understand, and look for an opportunity to cross the bridge. “Can I share with you a verse from the Bible that explains how everyone can know what will happen to us when we die?” Again, go to Romans 6:23.
Obviously, sharing that verse is going to be really challenging their entire worldview. But have the conversations about sin. What are the differences? Have the conversation about God. What are the differences? Eternal life. Salvation being a gift that we don’t earn, but that is given to us—all based on Who Jesus is and what He’s done. I’m not saying these are easy conversations. But the goal is to get in the conversation, confident that the gospel—when it’s shared in the power of the Holy Spirit—has power to save.
So ask questions and use illustrations. Think about how Paul used illustrations in his preaching, in places like Acts 17:22-31. Find stories that illustrate truth. Here is an example you might use:
The Thai King went out to fight the opposing Burmese ruler. Phrasiriyothai dressed up and joined the King’s ranks, disguised as a Thai warrior. Unknown to her royal husband, she rode out to the battle. In the ensuing fight, the Thai King was losing the advantage. He was about to be cut down. Seeing this, the Queen deliberately drove her elephant between the Burmese King and her husband. She was slain by the long-handled knife wielded by the Burmese ruler, but her husband escaped. He later built a special memorial to her in honor of her bravery and sacrifice.(Lausanne Occasional Paper 15: Christian Witness to Buddhists)
Here’s a story of love, sacrifice, and dying in someone else’s place so they could live. There’s gospel application that this illustration gives. It’s not a perfect example by any means.
Or take the everyday example of a court system. In Buddhist thought, “Only good deeds erase bad deeds.” So why not use the courts as an illustration? Challenge that belief along these lines: “That’s interesting. Do you know of any court system in the world that uses the good-deeds-erase-bad-deeds system? No? One bad deed requires punishment. But what if I told you there was a way for everyone in the world, including you and me, to escape any punishment for bad deeds?”
Again, you’re just thinking through the question, “How can I illustrate the gospel?” You don’t have to be a history expert to do this. Not everybody’s got Thai-queen illustrations they can pull out of their back pocket. But think of parables or stories in the Bible. It’s what Jesus did throughout His ministry. Think everyday analogies and examples in the world.
I think of one friend of mine who moved to Thailand to share the gospel with Buddhist college students. One night he went to a movie with a friend named Anin. They sat down in the theater to watch the film. Before the movie started, a video was shown about the king of Thailand. Immediately, everybody in the theater rose up and applauded, including Anin. Some people started crying tears of joy. As this short video played, the people were visibly moved by the sight of the king on the screen.
When the movie was over, they walked outside, and my friend asked Anin, “Why did everybody react with such emotion when the video about the king was played?” He answered, “Oh, we love, respect, and honor our king. He’s a king who cares for his people. He’ll often leave his palace and come to villages and communities in Thailand to be with the people, to know them, and to identify with them. We know that our king loves us, and we love him.”
My friend was listening carefully, then said, “I know another King, and He’s done the same thing.” He ended up sharing the gospel with Anin. They just talked about it, and that story began to be the bridge through which Anin ended up coming to put his faith in King Jesus.
So use illustrations. Ask questions. It’s all part of being wise with your language.
Be Winsome with your Life
Revere the majesty of God. Believing Buddhists stand in awe of the greatness of Buddha and their teachers and saviors. How much more should we be displaying a reverence and awe for the supreme God Who we believe in? Let’s show Buddhists a reverence for the God they don’t believe in such a way that they might wonder why they don’t believe in Him. Be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16).
Revere the majesty of God, and adorn the mystery of the gospel. “Adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10). With your speech, attitude, motives and work, adorn the gospel you’re proclaiming.
Be very sensitive to culture. What do I mean by that? Many Buddhists are from a communal culture that often is not confrontational where harmony and unity is valued—sometimes even more than truth is valued. So share the gospel with Colossians 3:12 in mind—humbly, lovingly, kindly, always leaving the door open for more conversations and continued relationships.
I’m not saying we should avoid the offense of the gospel. We covered that earlier. But share the gospel—even its offensiveness—with compassionate hearts and with kindness, humility, meekness and patience. In a sensitive culture, use varied means of communication such as stories and videos. For example, www.creationtochristvideo.com has been helpful in sharing the gospel with people from many different religions. Also use art and music, especially in Asian cultures, particularly more rural and tribal ones. Song, dance, drama, music and other arts are extremely common media of communication. Look for ways to infuse the gospel through those media.
What Do Buddhists Believe? Focus on the Family
Community is critical in most Buddhist cultures. So share the gospel not just with individuals, but with families. Think about Acts 16:30-34, where the Philippian jailor and his family received the gospel. Also, the church must be clearly represented as the body of Christ —much like we talked about earlier. Here’s how Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12:27: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
In your every interaction with Buddhists, be patient. Comprehension will take time. Buddhists are coming from a very different worldview, so don’t be surprised by long conversations with all kinds of questions working toward an understanding of the gospel. One Japanese pastor shared how it took him six years in the church until he finally understood what the Bible meant by sin.
So that process of comprehension is made all the more difficult by the fact that following Christ will cost. Buddhism and culture are often so tightly held together that to leave Buddhism feels like leaving one’s culture, and it could very well mean ostracism from one’s family or community. So Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:34-39 that seem very foreign to us sound familiar to Buddhists:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
I think about one couple in the mountains of Nepal who were exploring Christianity, exploring the gospel, as some folks were going there to reach them with the gospel. When word got around that they were exploring the gospel, the leaders in their village said, “You need to stop even talking with these people. If you don’t, you’re not going to be able to use the water supply anymore.” That water supply meant life.
But they continued the conversation and ended up trusting in Christ. A couple weeks after they trusted in Christ, they were dead. The village leaders had organized the village, and the couple had been stoned to death. This is reality. Be patient. Comprehension takes time. Following Christ will cost.
Be patient and be prayerful. Daniel 9:17-34 tells the story of when Daniel started praying, and there was a demonic war taking place in the heavenly places as he prayed. Just know that the walls of Buddhism have been built up over generations and centuries, and in some places and among some people they will not break down without prayer, fasting, and perseverance.
Appeal to the Heart
Be prayerful before God, and as you speak to a Buddhist, appeal to the heart. Think about the heart. Acknowledge the presence of evil desires that you have, I have, a Buddhist has—we all have. Again, another potential starting point here with which the Bible identifies is through these verses:
- The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Genesis 6:5).
- The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9).
- But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire (James 1:14).
These things are all true. So acknowledge the presence of evil desires. But don’t stop there. Move on to affirm the possibility of good desires: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). Not all desire is bad. Have this conversation: “Don’t we crave love in our lives? Yes. We crave love in our lives—is that bad? No, that’s great! It’s the greatest duty of our lives. Love is patient and kind and doesn’t boast. Higher than anything else, the greatest of these things is love. It’s a good desire.”
Think about other desires that are good. We all desire forgiveness when we fail. And that’s good. We long for meaning in our suffering. Yes, we all suffer, but don’t we long for meaning in our suffering? We long to know that even our suffering is ultimately bringing about good—which the Bible teaches it is, in Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Another good desire is we want to serve others who are suffering. We want to pour ourselves out for the hungry and satisfy the desires of the afflicted (Isaiah 58:10). Jesus came to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18).
How do you appeal to the heart of a Buddhist? Acknowledge the presence of evil desires. Affirm the presence of good desires. And then proclaim the promise of the gospel. Go to the gospel. Go to this glorious reality that God has Himself severed the root of suffering on earth. How?
Here’s the primary difference: we do not point people to a smiling Buddha sitting on a lotus blossom, disconnected from all we know that life entails. We point people to a suffering Christ, sacrificed on the cross; to a God Who’s not far from us, but Who came to us and suffered for us, so we can be saved from all suffering. This is good news. God has made it possible for us to be satisfied in eternity. Read Revelation 21:3-4:
The dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
There’s a day coming when we will be free from suffering and death. Yes, this world is full of suffering. But 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 tells us:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Tell them about the day when we will free from all evil desire. Revelation 21:27 says of heaven, “But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” Tell them that there’s coming a day when we can trust all our desires. All our desires are going to be good, and all of them are going to be completely fulfilled. Proclaim the promise of the gospel to Buddhists, and trust the power of the gospel when sharing with Buddhists.
In Acts 9:36-42, this gospel has the power to raise the dead to life, which means there is no Buddhist anywhere—any person anywhere, for that matter—who is beyond the power of the gospel to save.
What Do Buddhists Believe and how to Hold out the Hope
So when talking to Buddhists, we hold out the hope. Yes, yes, there’s suffering in the world, but there’s also hope. Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). We hold out the hope of power over evil desire now. Listen to the Buddha:
Those who follow the Way might well follow the example of an ox that marches through the deep mire carrying a heavy load. He is tired, but his steady gaze, looking forward, will never relax until he comes out of the mire, and it is only then he takes a respite. O monks, remember that passion and sin are more than the filthy mire, and that you can escape misery only by earnestly and steadily thinking of the Way.
Buddhism is described here as being like an ox trudging through the mud, carrying a heavy load. There is another way, Jesus says: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Trust in Jesus. He will take your burden off of you and will put His very Spirit in you, making your heart and life new from the inside out.
So hold out the hope of power over evil desire, and hold out the hope of power over death forever.
Listen to this Buddhist funeral chant: “Gone never to return. Asleep never to awake. There is no resurrection. There is no escape.” Can you imagine that chant at a funeral? Let’s teach them another chant: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).
We have good news to share with Hindus and Buddhists.
Key Terms, Concepts, and Scriptures
Who are Buddhists?
- Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BC) as a response to the suffering he saw around him. After finding what he called the path to Enlightenment, he taught others to do the same.
- The two primary schools of Buddhism are Theravada (Enlightenment available to the few; Buddha as earthly sage) and Mahayana (Enlightenment available to the many; Buddha as an eternal savior). Other schools of Buddhism include Vajrama, Tibetan, Zen, and New Age.
- Buddhist sacred texts include:
- Pali Canon: compilation of Buddhist teachings
- Mahavastu: collection of Buddha’s life story
- Sutras: sayings of Buddha
- Sutras: sayings of Buddha
What do Buddhists Believe?
- Buddhists believe in Four Noble Truths:
- Dukkha: all of life is suffering
- Samudaya: the cause of suffering is selfish desire
- Nirodha: the cure for suffering is overcoming selfish desire
- Eight-Fold Path: right views, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
- Enlightenment (Nirvana) is the liberation from all suffering.
- Salvation comes through self-effort.
- Buddhism is often mixed with atheism or animism.
How Do We Share the Gospel with Buddhists?
- Recognize there are superficial similarities (suffering, ethics, compassion, etc.).
- Realize there are substantial differences (God, man, Jesus, sin, salvation, etc.).
- Be wise with your language (Proverbs 15:2), winsome with your life (Matthew 5:13-16), and sensitive to culture (Colossians 3:12).
- Use varied means of communication (stories, videos, art, music, etc.).
- Given the importance of family and community for Buddhists, focus on the family (Philippians 16:30-34) and point to the church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27).
- Be patient (2 Peter 3:9) and prayerful (Daniel 9:3-4, 17-23).
- Appeal to the heart (Genesis 4:7; Psalm 37:4; Acts 2:38; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
- Hold out (talk about) the hope of Christ (Matthew 11:28-30; 1 Corinthians 15:50-58).