26 Nov 2018
I am currently working among followers of Theravada Buddhism, which differs from other kinds of Buddhism such as Mahayana or Zen Buddhism. The word “Theravada” translates as “Teachings of the elders.” Theravada Buddhists study, and are familiar with, their scriptures called the “Tipitaka” and hold to the most pure form of Buddhism. (See last week’s blog for the basics on Buddhism).
One of the challenges is that there aren’t many well translated or reliable written materials about Buddhism in the English language. As such, people from the west go into eastern Theravada countries without much understanding or a wrong, westernised understanding of what Buddhism is. A deep understanding of the local languages, as well as the original language of the Tipitaka (an ancient language called Pali), is needed to get a grasp of what Buddhists actually believe and how to best make understandable connections to Jesus.
Buddhism also has a very different worldview to the Judaeo-Christian worldview, with things such as karma, endless rebirth, previous lives’ demerits and various planes of existence. These can make bible verses that are very clear to us, very challenging, confusing or even offensive to them.
A classic example would be John 3:16. For a Buddhist, John 3:16 is a terrible thing to hear, as all Buddhists believe they have eternal life already, and that it is a curse! To them, it means endless births of suffering and sin. A Buddhist’s main goal is to perish!
Sharing verses that compare us to animals, like sheep or eagles, can also be a stumbling block because they believe they may have been a literal sheep or eagle in a previous life and just escaped to finally become a human!
Many Buddhists who see a picture or hear of Jesus dying on the cross will quickly think he has done many wicked deeds in his previous “past lives” to end up on a cross, and often confuse resurrection with ‘reincarnation’. The Buddhist understanding of the word “heaven” is a place that Buddhists don’t desire to go to because “heaven” as they understand it, is a place full of sin, ghosts and a guarantee of further suffering. You can get a picture of why many Buddhists will reject Jesus and his offers at first glance.
However, I think this rejection of Jesus isn’t always about hostility, it’s just a lack of understanding. In English, we think Buddhism revolves around “desires”, and can make many unhelpful comments and challenges regarding good and bad desires. A more accurate description would be the “sin” which “bad desires” spring from. All Buddhists are just trying to escape from their sin with religious deeds which, by their own scriptures, is an impossible task (hence the endless births and reincarnations). Nearly every single Buddhist believes that in their next life they will end up in hell.
Once Buddhists realise that Jesus actually can forgive people from sin, they become much more interested in hearing about him. The forgiveness of sins that they have been working for their whole lives is found in Jesus Christ alone! He brings assurance of entering the true, eternal heaven, a place without any sin or suffering and a release from the burden of following endless religious deeds and rules without any hope of ever achieving salvation!
Once Buddhists realise this, every gospel conversation is a breakthrough conversation! From the everyday layperson to high level hermit monks, all want to hear about the forgiveness of sins that is found through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They all desire to know about the salvation by grace though faith in Jesus Christ.