The gospel can be appealing to Buddhists if witnessing focuses on areas of personal
need where the Buddhist belief system is weak.
If you have any experience witnessing to Buddhists we would like to hear from you.
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Founder: 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 Canon.
Adherents: 323,894,000 worldwide; 920,000 in the United States. (Source:
www.zpub.com/un/pope/rdig.html [cited 21 March 2001]) 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 Southern Buddhism (38%) is followed in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Myanmar (Burma), Thailand,
Cambodia (Kampuchea), and Vietnam. 2. Mahayana or Eastern Buddhism (56%) is strong
in China, Korea, and Japan. 3. Vajrayana, or Northern Buddhism (6%) is rooted in
Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia. Theravada 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 enlightenment.
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?
Along with other eastern religions, Buddhism is influencing the New Age movement.
Certainly Buddhist growth is benefiting from the rapid growth of New Age thought
on American life.
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.
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
The gospel 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 Corinthians. 4:18).
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” (Romans. 5:8).
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” (Revelation. 21:4).
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” (Romans. 8:28, NIV). Merit:
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 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” (Ephesians. 2:8-9).
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 Timothy. 2:22).
Jesus and the Eightfold Path
Because 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:
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and there is salvation in
no one else (Acts 4:12).
Fights and quarrels come from selfish desires and wrong motives (James. 4:1-3);
right desires and motives honor God (1 Corinthians. 10:31).
A day of judgment is coming when God will hold men accountable for every careless
word they have spoken (Matthew. 12:36).
The one who loves Jesus must obey Him (John 14:21), and those who live by God’s
wisdom will produce good acts/fruit (James. 3:17).
God will care for those who put Him first (Matthew. 6:31,33), and all work must
be done for God’s approval (2 Timothy. 2:15).
Like runners in a race, followers of Christ must throw off every hindrance in order
to give Him their best efforts (Hebrews. 12:1-2).
The sinful mind cannot submit to God’s law (Romans. 8:7), and disciples of Christ
must orient their minds as He did (Philippians. 2:5).
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 (Colossians. 3:1-4).
When 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 Christ.
- 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 (see “Bridges for Evangelizing Buddhists” and “Jesus and the
- 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 easier.”
- Share your own testimony, especially your freedom from guilt, assurance of heaven
(no more pain), and personal relationship with Christ.
- Prepare with prayer. Do not witness in your own strength.
Daniel R. Heimbach, Professor of Christian Ethics, Southeastern Baptist Theological
Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C. Revised 2001 by N.S.R.K. Ravi. Associate, Interfaith
Evangelism Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International
Version. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission.
© 1996, 2001, North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, Alpharetta,
Georgia All rights reserved. The North American Mission Board grants permission
for reproduction of this publication for educational purposes.