Buddhism, Part 1
can damn a man but his own righteousness; nothing can save him but the righteousness of Christ."
the world's fourth largest religion. The following information will give you a brief overview of Buddhism, how its main beliefs
contrast with Christianity, and bridges to use when evangelizing.
Siddhartha Gautama, a prince from northern India near modern Nepal who lived about 563-483 b.c.
Scriptures: Various, but the oldest and most authoritative are compiled in the Pali
Adherents: 613 million worldwide; 1 million in
the United States.
General Description: 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 Vietnam.
2. Mahayana, the Greater Vehicle (56%), is strong in China, Korea,
3. Vajrayana, also called Tantrism or
Lamaism, (6%) is rooted in Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia.
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
Growth 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.
Historic Background: 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.
Core Beliefs: 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
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).
Self: Buddhists must work to convince themselves they have no personal significance, 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).
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-perfection. 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).
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 that 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).
Buddhists live a contradiction-they seek to overcome suffering by rooting out desire, but at the same time they cultivate
desire for self-control, 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).
Jesus and the Eightfold Path
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).
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).
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 Jesus must orient their minds as He did (Phil. 2:5).
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).
Witnessing to Buddhists
- 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."
- Emphasize the uniqueness of Jesus
- Focus on the gospel message and do not get distracted by details of Buddhist doctrine.
- Understand Buddhist beliefs enough to discern weaknesses that can be used to make the gospel appealing ("Bridges
for Evangelizing Buddhists" and "Jesus and the Eightfold Path").
- 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 is
- Share your own testimony, especially your freedom from guilt, assurance of heaven
(no more pain), and personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
- Prepare with prayer. Do not witness
in your own strength.
Daniel R. Heimbach, ©
1996 North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, Alpharetta, Georgia. All rights reserved. Reprinted
 Cameron, K., & Comfort, R. (2004). The school of biblical evangelism: 101 lessons: how to share your faith simply, effectively, biblically-the way Jesus
did (pp. 540-545). Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers.