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Ultimate Liberation: Responding to the Buddhist View of Salvation

Because of the rising prominence of Eastern religions in mainstream popular culture, Christians need to understand Buddhism as it relates to practical approaches to sharing their faith.

By Alan R. Johnson

“The Buddha in many ways has shown us to have confidence in our own action and its results, and thereby encouraged us to depend on no one but ourselves. … [He told one of his disciples], ‘Ananda, be dependent on yourself, take refuge in yourself and not in others. … be dependent on the Dhamma, go for refuge to the Dhamma — the righteous principles.’ ”1

Attahi Attano Natho
Pali - “Oneself is the refuge for one”
(Buddhist quote from the Dhammapada)

I have worked and lived in Thailand for 26 years now. It is not unusual for me to get into interesting “faith” conversations with seatmates when traveling. One time on a flight in the states, after hearing I was involved in Christian work in Thailand, my seatmate told me she was a Christian-Buddhist. I asked her what that meant. She explained there were some themes in Buddhism she felt were not addressed by the Christian faith.

On another flight a woman explained how she regularly flew to San Francisco to meet with a Tibetan Buddhist monk to learn from him.

The Buddhist core comprises 468 million adherents worldwide. When you take a wider definition that includes Chinese folk-religionists, “it is appropriate to speak of 1 billion Buddhists.”2 There are 3.7 million Buddhists in North America,3 with more than 2 million in the United States.4 It is likely that someday you will meet someone who has converted to, is dabbling with, or was born into Buddhism.

Siddhartha Gautama (563–483 B.C.), by virtue of his enlightenment, became the Buddha (meaning “enlightened one” or “awakened one”) and founded the religious system known as Buddhism. The insights he gained from this experience form the core belief and practice among the three major streams of Buddhism that exist today.

Because of the rising prominence of Eastern religions in mainstream popular culture and fascination with concepts like karma and reincarnation, Christians need to understand Buddhism. The Buddhist worldview is a challenge to Christians who believe they are to declare the good news of what God has done for mankind in Jesus Christ and make disciples among all the tribes, tongues, and peoples of the earth.

The purpose of this essay is to help pastors and Christian leaders understand key aspects of Buddhism and practical approaches to sharing their faith, so they can equip their members to effectively minister to their Buddhist friends.

Salvation in Buddhism: The Quest for Liberation

When the gospel meets the Buddhist worldview, one of the most fundamental points of difference is how people achieve ultimate salvation. For Christians, they do not earn salvation from sin, reconciliation to the living God, and eternal life. These are gifts of grace, brought about by what Christ has done for them through His death and resurrection. Christians receive these gifts by faith. Buddhism, however, locates the human dilemma, not in a broken relationship with the living God, but in a grasping that leads to endless cycles of rebirth and suffering (samsara). To be liberated from these cycles is the work of the individual and no other.

Gautama framed the insights of his enlightenment experience in what Buddhists call the Four Noble Truths. These ideas represent interrelated concepts that make up the fundamental worldview and understanding of reality in Buddhism. These ideas can be simplified using the following six propositions.

1. The illusory nature of “reality” as we know it.

People often describe Buddha’s insight as a “knowing and seeing things as they really are.”5 Dhammananda says, “When we recognize that all phenomenal things are transitory, are subject to suffering and are void of any essential reality, we will be convinced … that true happiness must be sought only through mental purity and cultivation of wisdom.” 6 Buddha saw that the world and everything in it, including all deities and all human experience, are marked by anitya (impermanence, transitory), dukkha (painful and unsatisfactory, suffering), and anatman (devoid of self or essence).7

Dukkha is the main subject of the Four Noble Truths. It follows ancient medical formula in stating the nature of the illness (diagnosis), the condition that brings about the illness (cause), whether the illness can be cured (cessation), and the means of bringing about the cure (extinguish).8

The first Noble Truth is Buddha’s diagnosis of the sickness of humankind, which is dukkha,usually translated as suffering. Since everything is impermanent, all objects, people, mental states, and worlds are transitory and pass away; thus our experience of life is dukkha.9

The second Noble Truth has to do with the cause of suffering which is craving (tanha) for sensual pleasure, existence, and nonexistence.10

The third Noble Truth is the cessation of suffering, which comes about by extinguishing craving.

The fourth Noble Truth is how to extinguish craving by following the Eightfold Path.

Buddhists traditionally divide the path, the means to liberation from samsara (endless cycles of birth, old age, pain, death, and rebirth), into three groups:11 the moral disciplines of right speech, right action, and right livelihood; the concentration group made up of right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration; and the wisdom group of right view and right intention.12

Buddhist teachers see an indivisible unity between the Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path since the right view “involves a correct understanding of the entire Dhamma or teaching of the Buddha, and thus its scope is equal to the range of the Dhamma itself.”13 Bhikku Bodhi summarizes it in this way: “The two principles penetrate and include one another, the formula of the Four Noble Truths containing the Eightfold Path and the Noble Eightfold Path containing the Four Truths.”14

2. The result of our delusion is samsara.

Samsara,also known as conditioned existence, is sometimes translated as transmigration or rebirth.15Samsara is the circle of suffering that is the destiny of all living beings until they achieve enlightenment and break the pattern of rebirth to experience the truth of existence.”16 Samsara is our failure to understand the Four Noble Truths that cause us to continue to go around the cycle of birth and death.17

3. Karma is the impersonal law of cause and effect and drives rebirth.

Although people often use karma with the connotation of “bad,” the word karma is neutral. It means action and carries the notion that all intentional actions have consequences.18 It is an unchanging law whereby what you do, good or bad, will be repaid to you at some point in the future whether in this life or a rebirth. In samsara, good and evil karmic retribution govern all sentient beings (meaning having perception and consciousness).19 Thus, karma determines the movement of beings between rebirths.20

4. Rebirth is the reconstitution of the five aggregates (khandas).

People commonly misunderstand that Buddhists believe in reincarnation as in the transmigration of the soul to another embodiment. But the anatman doctrine means there is no permanent soul or self to continue on. “What we call ‘I’ or ‘being’ is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect. There is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging, and eternal in the whole of existence.”21 Grasping or clinging to one or more of the five aggregates (khandas), elements or objects representing conscious existence, perpetuates the cycle of birth, pain, old age, and death, which is suffering (samsara).22 Suffering is extinguished when one surrenders attachment to aggregates.

5. The goal is to break out of the cycle of birth and rebirth into Nirvana.

Nirvana is a notoriously difficult concept to define even within Buddhism. Buddhists contrast Nirvana with samsara as a conditioned state. They say Nirvana is the opposite, which is unconditioned. Nirvana literally means extinction or quenching, and Buddhists see it as the release from samsara.23 Some synonyms used in primitive Buddhist teachings are: the unconditioned, the final limit, nondelusion, truth, inexpressible, tranquil, all craving extinct, free from desire, release, nonabiding, refuge, reaching the other shore.24

6. The quest for liberation is the work of each individual person to attain enlightenment.

Since in this view what we experience as “life” is a delusion because there is no actual “I” that exists, the path for liberation from the unending cycle of birth and rebirth is one of awakening and enlightenment to know truth. People gain this through following the Eightfold Path. Buddhists divide meditation — one of the elements in the path — into two parts: shamatha, which is for calming, and vipassana, which is for insight.25

Any psychological benefits accrued from meditation in the Buddhist view are only by-products of the main purpose which is “to free the mind to realize the truth.”26 Individuals carry out this pursuit completely by themselves. Buddhists frequently quote Buddha, “Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others.”

While formal, doctrinal Buddhism focuses on liberation from samsara, in societies where people are born into the religion, the popular practice is a mix of traditional religion and local practices along with Buddhist concepts. This includes ritual accumulation of merit to secure a better future life; ceremonies to control fate, destiny, and luck to face present problems; consulting astrologers, palm readers, and spirit mediums; asking powerful beings that have great stores of merit to help them with their needs; the use of curses, amulets, and tattoos for protection. The extreme difficulty in the pursuit of enlightenment makes people seek answers for daily needs in other kinds of practices.

Salvation Through Jesus Christ: By Grace Through Faith

In contrast to the Buddhist view of human existence as a cycle of suffering caused by ignorance with the need for enlightenment through self-effort to achieve liberation, the Bible tells us God exists from eternity, has no beginning and no end, and is separate from His creation. God spoke the physical universe into existence. As the capstone of His creation, He made man and woman in His image to worship and obey Him and to live in relationship with Him. God’s original creation was good. But when humans disobeyed His commandment, our relationship with Him became broken. We became subject to physical death, judgment for our sin, and all creation itself became subject to the “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21).

The story of the Bible is that from the very beginning the solution to the problem of human sin always rested with God. In the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s disobedience, God sought them (Genesis 3:8,9). He called Abraham to himself (Genesis 12:1–3). It was Abraham’s belief in the Lord’s promise of a son and countless offspring that was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:4–6).

Salvation and a restored relationship with the living God have always been on the basis of grace. As God established His covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, He recounted His delivering them from slavery and bringing them to himself “on eagles’ wings” (Exodus 19:3–6; 20:2) before establishing the laws that would govern their relationship. In the New Testament, Jesus sees himself as the ransom given for many (Mark 10:45). John the Baptist declares Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Contrary to Buddhism, humanities’ problem is not delusion but the objective problem of a broken relationship with the God. Both the initiative and means for restoring that relationship lie with God. Human beings cannot work their way out of their sin problem. They cannot buy, earn, or merit forgiveness and restoration. The incredible news of the Bible is that God came to earth and became a human being to bear our sin so we can become His children.

Paul says salvation from the penalty of sin is solely by grace, God’s unmerited favor toward us (Ephesians 2:8). What is the human response to God’s gracious provision that allows us to receive the gift of new life? John 3:16 says, “whoever believes in him” receives eternal life. Paul says it is “through faith … not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9). The biblical view of salvation is diametrically opposite to the self-effort of the Eightfold Path or any pursuit to attain enlightenment by one’s own efforts.

The Truth of the Gospel in a World of Religious Pluralism

When Bible-believing Christians interact with Buddhists or people of other faith traditions, they often try to assert or defend the gospel as contrasted with other views. I have found Lesslie Newbigin’s work to be helpful in thinking about how to approach such encounters. Newbigin points out that there are “patterns of belief and practice accepted within a given society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to its members and which are not.” We call these “plausibility structures.”27 Inside a plausibility structure things make sense. However, looking in from the outside it is extremely difficult to comprehend that thought world. He also reminds us that we cannot have coherent thought without some kind of basic foundational “givens.”28 The difficulty is this: When Christians attempt to point out the problems with foundational concepts of Buddhists, or vice versa, it leaves the latter feeling misunderstood. Argument for the truth of one’s perspective and thus the falsity of the other position often ends up reinforcing perspectives rather than opening doors for further discussion.

The good news about Christ’s death and resurrection “gives rise to a new plausibility structure, a radically different vision from those that shape all human cultures apart from the gospel.”29 However, to come to know the truth of Jesus Christ is not something we can think or reason our way into; it is a revelation from God (Matthew 16:17). If this is the case, then we need to follow the advice of Peter who told his readers they were to give an answer for their hope “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Our role becomes one of creating an account of the world that we inhabit from our vantage point of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the entire Bible, and then powerfully living that account out before people.

The religious pluralism in our society does not require we accept the ideology of religious pluralism — that all religious claims are equally true and equally effective in bringing salvation.30 To believe in Jesus as “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), is not a license for arrogance, nor does it mean we fully apprehend all truth. What it does mean is that we can boldly and confidently share our experience of Jesus Christ and how that relationship brings an explanation to our origin, nature, meaning, and purpose in this world.

Alister McGrath, in his second lecture in the 2009 Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology, quotes C.S. Lewis: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”31 He follows this up by saying, “These words of C.S. Lewis speak of the binary intellectual virtue of the Christian faith: the conviction that it makes sense in itself, and that it makes sense of everything else … the Christian vision of reality possesses an internal coherence and consistency which is at least matched by its remarkable ability to make sense of what we observe and experience.”32

If we work from this perspective, we can raise questions that operate from inside the Buddhist’s system about what humans commonly observe and experience. Let me illustrate with examples of possible lines of questioning.

We can inquire about Buddhist explanations of how everything got here and notions of cyclical time, and then talk about God’s creation and the way current scientific theory sees a distinctive beginning. How do we explain the “no-soul” doctrine and the apparent “fine-tuning” that are evidenced in the universe that allows for life and human existence? How does the “no-soul” doctrine relate to the universality of human notions of right and wrong and the fact we are aware of not doing right? What about the things in human experience where we cannot depend on ourselves, such as when we are born, when our parents feed us, or the fact brain surgeons cannot do surgery on themselves? We can ask Buddhists, since Nirvana is the stated goal, if they personally know anyone who has reached Nirvana?

We can begin to raise questions that may cause them to seek answers about origins, the presence of human life, right and wrong, being made in the image of God, free will, the need for someone outside ourselves to help us be reconciled to the living God, and the powerful witness in history of the empty tomb and lives that are changed by the risen Christ.

Sharing Good News With Buddhist Friends

Sharing the gospel effectively with Buddhists or those influenced by a Buddhist worldview depends in part on the kind of Buddhist with whom you are interacting. Those interested in Buddhism, or who are converts in North America, are often reacting against an experience of a version of Christianity that has been unsatisfactory for them. They know about Jesus but have chosen to reject the Christian faith. In such cases, we need a long-term and intentional redemptive relationship to break down stereotypes and misunderstanding so through words and deeds they can see Jesus in a new light.

In what follows I focus on immigrants to North America who were born into a Buddhist society. Many principles I discuss will be useful for any kind of witnessing encounter with people who are from a different faith tradition or who hold a radically different worldview from ours.

1. Build good relationships with Buddhists.

Christian demographers tell us that 86 percent of the Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist world do not know a single Christian.33 People from these traditions come to the United States to study, work, or live. Yet many never have a single conversation with a Christian, much less develop a good friendship with a Christian. To reach a Buddhist with Christ’s love requires making space for a genuine relationship. Your life is going to provide the interpretive background for anything you say to them about Jesus.

2. Bring issues of faith to the forefront of the relationship.

Be upfront about who you are and your faith in Christ. Buddhists and others can feel set up when Christians pursue a friendship with them and then after a period of time spring on them that Jesus is the greatest thing in their lives. We need to genuinely love and serve people and not see them as objects of our mission. At the same time we need to let them know that our lifestyle choices are deeply connected to our relationship with Jesus Christ.

When eating together, let them know you pray over your food and invite them to participate. Ask them to tell you what they do before eating. Tell people what you did over the weekend and about going to church. Talk about your Christian spirituality, devotional life, and fasting and prayer. Most of the world outside the West sees people as born into their religion. They think all Americans are Christians. Imagine what they think Christians do. They are genuinely shocked to find that really following Jesus Christ results in a changed life of purity and holiness. Talking about their perceptions of what Christians are like is a great starting point for sharing.

3. Recognize that virtually all the concepts you normally think about when you share the good news with people are not clear to your Buddhist friend.

Notions of God, His creation, His character, sin and the human dilemma, the cross, faith, and eternal life all sound strange to Buddhists. They often reinterpret them in light of their worldview. For instance, they often equate God with the law of karma. They see Jesus’ death on the Cross as the result of living a bad life and accumulating much demerit in previous lives. Virtually every key element in John 3:16 is an enigma to the person who sees life according to their Buddhist worldview.

4. View sharing the gospel as a process. Share content and check for understanding.

If the people we are talking with do not easily understand the content of our message, instead of rushing through the points of the gospel and pressing for a decision to receive Jesus, we need to communicate the content of the gospel and then ask questions to assess what they understand. Sharing the gospel is a process and not a point-in-time event. This includes dialogue, not just monologue. For instance, ask questions about what they believe and practice in their faith. Find out what is happening in their life, what problems they are facing. Often sincere inquiry will cause people to ask you how you handle things in your life, bringing the chance to talk about your relationship with Jesus.

5. Tell stories from the Bible, read the Bible with them, and let them read it on their own.

Folk Buddhists do not have a tradition of reading their sacred texts. At the same time, they often love stories. Much of the way they communicate their faith is via stories. This is a great opportunity to tell the stories of the Bible to people in answer to specific issues they may be facing or worldview issues.

6. Help them probe the implications of a decision to follow Jesus.

Because Buddhists focus on correct practice more than correct belief, they are often thinking about what the message means to them in terms of their social relationships rather than whether it is true or not. Taking time with people and allowing them to ask questions as they explore the implications of a decision to follow Jesus are critical to having them make an informed decision. Remember they may come from societies that value saving face and will pray the prayer to make you happy without any actual commitment to follow Jesus. When they do make a decision it needs to come from their heart and voluntarily.

7. Whenever possible work with the entire family.

Try to build a positive climate for the potential new convert by building trust with the family. In societies that highly value respect for elders and parents, for a Christian to lead a child or minor away from their ancestral path is the ultimate insult and a grievous offense. We set potential converts up for failure if we lead them to faith but then let them stand alone against the enmity of their closest social relations.

8. Expose them to the community of faith.

Invite your Buddhist friends to a small group, to a gathering of Christians, and to church services. Let them hear of God’s grace at work in people’s lives. Utilize small group and larger group events to expose people to personal testimonies and the gospel.

9. Buddhist people come to faith through experiencing Christ and not through verbal presentations alone.

Normally in our Western tradition of witnessing, we talk about the gospel but do not often pray with people to experience the power of Christ. Do not simply say, “I will pray for you.” Ask people what needs they have and pray with them for healing, blessing, and provision right then. Invite people to pray on their own as well. The experience of answered prayer often opens the eyes of folk Buddhists who will then be more open to learn about Jesus.

10. Pray for your Buddhist friends.

At the end of the day, it is the work of the Holy Spirit that draws people to Jesus. One convert from a Buddhist country shared how her initial attraction to a church in her homeland was to the foreigners teaching English there. She attended church services, but they made no sense to her. Then while listening to a message on Revelation 3:20 she said Jesus knocked on the door of her heart and she invited Him in. This is what Jesus does; He reveals himself to people. Let Him use you to plant the seed of the gospel into the hearts of Buddhist people in your life.

Conclusion

The apostle Paul lived and worked in a religious environment every bit as pluralistic as ours. He did not just talk about Jesus in the safety of the synagogue with Jews and Gentile God-fearers; we see him proclaiming good news to Gentiles in crowds (Acts 13:8–20), reasoning with people at the marketplace in Athens, bearing witness at a meeting of the Areopagus (Acts 17:16–34), and leading discussions in the lecture hall of Tyrannus for 2 years with such impact that the whole province of Asia heard the word of the Lord (Acts 19:8–11). We believe as Paul did that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). With that conviction we need to pray for boldness to fearlessly make known this message (Ephesians 6:19) to everyone including our Buddhist friends and those of other faith traditions. Our churches, programs, and ministries are not the good news; the good news is the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ. He is the Pearl of Great Price, the Treasure in the field. Only in Him will Buddhists find true peace and the final answer to their quest.

ALAN R. JOHNSON is missionary in Thailand, serving there since 1986.

Note

1. Bhikkhu Dhammasami, “The Practice of Chanting in Buddhism.” Available from http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma2/chanting.html. Accessed 21 October 2011.

2.Todd M. Johnson and Kenneth R. Ross, eds. Atlas of Global Christianity 1910–2010 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, Center for the Study of Global Christianity, 2009), 14.

3. Ibid., 15.

4. Senpai Sensei, “Buddhism in USA.” Available from http://buddhismusa.com/7/buddhism-in-usa.html. Accessed 21 October 2011.

5. Andrew Skilton, A Concise History of Buddhism (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1994), 27.

6. K. Sri. Dhammananda, What Buddhists Believe (Kuala Lampur: Buddhist Missionary Society Malaysia, 2002), 97,98.

7. Skilton, 27.

8. Ibid., 28.

9. Ibid., 28,29.

10. Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 53.

11. Bhikkhu Bodhi, “The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering.” Available from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html. Accessed 21 October 2011.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Kogen Mizuno, Essentials of Buddhism (Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co., 1996), 27.

16. Buddhist Studies for secondary students, “Unit Five: Experiencing Buddhism.” Available from http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/bs-s07.htm. Accessed 21 October 2011.

17. K. Sri. Dhammananda, What Buddhists Believe (Kuala Lampur: Buddhist Missionary Society Malaysia, 2002), 98.

18. Skilton, 31.

19. Mizuno, 27.

20. Harvey, 39.

21. Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 66.

22. “The First and Second Noble Truths.” Available from http://www.londonbuddhistvihara.org/lectures_week/WEEK2.HTM. Accessed 21 October 2011.

23. Mizuno, 154.

24. Ibid., 133.

25. Jack Maguire, Essential Buddhism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs and Practices (New York: Pocket Books, 2001), 119.

26. Ibid.

27. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1989), 8.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid., 9.

30. Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith & Mission (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 12.

31. Alister McGrath, The 2009 Gifford lectures. “A Fine-tuned Universe: Science, Theology, and the Quest for Meaning.” University of Aberdeen. Available from http://www.abdn.ac.uk/gifford/lecture-texts/. Accessed 21 Oct 2011.

32. Ibid.

33. Johnson and Ross, 316.

Resources for Further Study

Burnett, David. 1996. The Spirit of Buddhism: A Christian Perspective on Buddhist Thought. Herts, England: Monarch Publications.

Muck, Terry C. 2011. “Interreligious Dialogue: Conversations That Enable Christian Witness.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 35, no. 4: 187-192.

Thirumalai, Madasamy. 2003. Sharing Your Faith With a Buddhist. Minneapolis: Bethany House.

Yamamoto, J. Isamu. 1982. Beyond Buddhism: A Basic Introduction to the Buddhist Tradition. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

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