Sharing Jesus with Buddhist Friends
As I settled into my seat on a plane from Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur, I was joined by a young lady from Thailand. I introduced myself and we got to know each other. It turned out Sawat (not her real name) had been in Nepal for a few months, and that she had stayed at Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha. I asked her what had taken her there and she shared her story: during surgery some years ago, she had had a vision; she couldn’t remember much about the vision, but it had propelled her on a quest that had taken her around the world. And now she was going to Cambodia, disappointed that she had not found the answer to her quest.
‘What had taken you there?’ she asked. And now I could share about my vision, my desire to tell people about the Lord Jesus. ‘Have you heard about Jesus?’ I asked her. ‘I heard some stories when I was young,’ she replied with interest. So I told her the story of Jesus, how he was the eternal God who created the universe, how our first parents had been created good but rebelled against their maker, and how the Son of God had taken on human nature and been born into this world to make people right with him.
‘Maybe I was meant to sit here in this seat,’ she said, and then asked a question that was clearly very important to her: ‘Can you tell me what my vision was?’ ‘I can’t,’ I replied, thinking this is oddly like a question Daniel was asked, ‘but I can tell you why it is that people have a need for spiritual insight.’
Her face contorted as she listened. This was obviously all new to her. One question followed the other as she wrestled with each new concept. And as she wrestled it seemed that it was starting to sink in. ‘What is sin?’ ‘It is rebellion and failure to live up to God’s standard.’ Her face fell as she acknowledged that she too had done bad things.
‘But how can one person die for the sins of someone else?’ Back and forth we went until the cabin crew dimmed the lights and we settled down for some sleep. As we disembarked, we exchanged contact details. I urged her to get hold of a Thai Bible and read the story of Jesus for herself, and as she reads to feel free to send me more questions.
The roots of Buddhism
Sawat is a Buddhist: that is, she is a follower of the tradition associated with teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, a wandering Indian mendicant, living sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, who became known as Gautama Buddha, ‘The Enlightened One’. The earliest records of Gautama Buddha’s life are dated from around 400 years after his death, so it is difficult to get an accurate historical account. The story is that he grew up in a sheltered environment with wealth and pleasure but that as a young man he ventured outside the palace and encountered the darker side of life, suffering and death. It was this that set him on a quest to discover the answer to the problem of pain and suffering (dukkha).
Rejecting the teachings of the Brahman priests he turned to a life of asceticism, renouncing all sensual pleasures. This too he rejected, beginning a life of meditation, gaining enlightenment one day, as the story goes, under a bodhi fig tree. The teachings of Buddha spread through India and from there across much of Asia. A Brahman renaissance later all but wiped out Buddhism in India, but it is still a major force in many other Asian countries.
The Buddhist quest
Buddhists comprise about seven percent of the world’s population, or roughly 500 million people. Most live in one of the countries of Southeast Asia, such as Thailand and Cambodia, or East Asia, with the largest number being in China.
Buddhism is not so much a set of beliefs as a path that leads to the end of suffering and ignorance. You live the holy life by experiencing life as it is, full of suffering, and seeing it is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and empty. The cause of this is craving – self-centred desire for life and pleasure.
Buddhism is not so much a set of beliefs as a path that leads to the end of suffering and ignorance
The goal of the holy life is to rid one’s self of this craving and so achieve nirvana, the blessed state in which one’s consciousness is extinguished and the fire of desire that fuels the cycle of birth and rebirth (karma/samsara) and its accompanying suffering is snuffed out. The means by which this is achieved differs by tradition.
Theravada (the ‘Way of the Elders’) is a Buddhist monastic tradition that is followed in Sri Lanka and much of southeast Asia, including Thailand. The Theravada quest, if we may call it that, is to follow the teachings of Buddha and so escape suffering. Theravada monks and nuns are supported by the community through almsgiving, and as such, are on a fast track to nirvana. The community, on the slow track, are taught the Buddhist teachings and gain merit by giving alms and supporting the monks and nuns.
Mahayana (the ‘Great Vehicle’) Buddhism is practiced throughout China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Though there are monks in Mahayana it is not a monastic tradition, but a vision of what Buddhism really is all about. Buddha, it is thought, was much more than he seemed to be – he was a manifestation of a transcendent Buddha, something akin to God. In Mahayana, people aspire to become perfect Buddhas themselves.
Zen is a form of Mahayana that emphasises meditation (dhyana), especially sitting meditation. In recent times it has gained popularity in the West as mindfulness, the practice of calming the mind especially by paying attention to one’s breathing.
Vajrayana Buddhism uses magical rituals, such as sacred circles (mandalas) and sounds (mantras), to heal people, give good crops, etc. Tibetan Buddhism, led by the Dalai Lama, is a Vajrayana tradition that has a popular following in Hollywood.
Buddhist nations have been heavily affected by colonialism and communism and, more recently, capitalism. Anti-colonial sentiment has often led to opposition to Christian missionaries. Communism, especially in China and southeast Asia, has had a massive impact on the lives of many millions of Buddhists.
Globalisation has had a huge impact on Buddhists, especially in countries, like Thailand and Japan, which have prospered greatly materially. Many, however, are critical of the new individualism that has been unleashed, challenging the traditional emphasis on community.
the vast majority of Buddhists are not well versed in Buddhist philosophy and doctrine
This also affects the way people see the call to follow Christ. Buddhists have come to Christ in numbers in Korea and China but in most Buddhist societies there has been precious little gospel fruit. One reason for this is that in many predominantly Buddhist countries, Buddhist identity is equated with being a good citizen. ‘Conversion’ is seen as disloyal, an abandonment of one’s family, community, nation, and heritage.
Until recently, evangelists to Buddhists have often favoured an apologetic approach that challenges intellectuals at the level of ideas. But the vast majority of Buddhists are not well versed in Buddhist philosophy and doctrine. These folk Buddhists, as they are sometimes called, are more attracted by stories than complex debate.
Ten tips for sharing Christ with Buddhists
You may never have talked to a Buddhist about Jesus before and may find it intimidating. But remember that the Lord himself helps us in our witness by his Spirit. And you may well be the only true follower of Christ they know.
Try to ensure that your friend understands what you are saying by asking questions and encouraging them to ask questions of you.
Your character, as a follower of Jesus, is fundamental to any presentation of the gospel to a Buddhist. If you are not humble but come across as a spiritual know-all, you will not commend Jesus.
Many Buddhists in the UK have never entered a British home. Life for many people revolves around family meals and community feasts. Always offer food to guests or they might find your hospitality rather cold and begrudging.
Ask them what they think of life and spirituality. What do they think of suffering? Where do they think beauty and love come from? How do they decide what is good or bad?
Focus on the person of Christ. Many Buddhist people are very attracted to the person of Jesus. The story of Jesus, as it is presented in the Gospels, is very interesting. Be prepared for plenty of questions, as many of the historical details may be completely new. If you don’t have the answer, tell them you will try to find out for the next time you get together.
Put yourself in their shoes. If they are from another country, they might feel intimidated by a local person. A big issue for many Buddhists is honour: it is important to preserve the honour of one’s family and nation. It is also important to preserve the honour of someone who has been friendly to them. It would be shameful to do something that would reflect badly on someone else – make them lose face. So, don’t push them into having to choose between loyalty to their roots and to you, their new friend.
When a person has had very limited exposure to the message of the Bible, you should not expect them to want to follow Christ after one conversation. It is often only after a few years of patient contact and friendship that such a person comes to really understand the gospel.
When we share Christ with others, we are completely dependent on the Lord to change their heart. He uses our words. But the heart is not changed automatically. God must work by his Spirit (John 3:5–8). We show our dependence on the Lord by bringing our friend to him in prayer, asking the Lord to perform a work of spiritual transformation.
Buddhists are coming to trust in Christ. The Lord has said that he will honour his word and make it fruitful (Isaiah 55:10–11).
- Starr, Kelsey Jo. ‘5 Facts about Buddhists around the World’ Cited 25 March 2020.
- Various authors. ‘Buddhism.’ Part Six in The New Lion Handbook: The World’s Religions. Gen. ed. Christopher Partridge. Third ed. revised and expanded. Oxford: Lion, 2005.
- Zukeran, Patrick. ‘Buddhism’ Cited 25 March 2020.
 In case you are wondering, I do not think this is sufficient reason for followers of Christ to avoid this practice.