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Buddhism’s new prominence not beyond Christian witness

CHICAGO (BP)–While building a theater for the Dalai Lama, one of Heinrich Harrer’s workers accidentally killed an earthworm in the movie, “7 Years in Tibet.”
Construction nearly came to a standstill. “No more hurting worms,” one worker told Harrer, played by Brad Pitt. “In a past life, this poor worm could have been your mother.”
That belief of reincarnation is one of the more recognizable beliefs of the Buddhist religion, although it is by no means the most important. What’s also recognizable about Buddhism is this — its popularity in the United States is growing.
Three motion pictures with Buddhist overtones have been or will be released before year’s end — “7 Years in Tibet,” “Red Corner,” starring Richard Gere, and “Kundun,” a movie directed by Martin Scorsese which will open Christmas Day. A number of celebrities are well-known for their Buddhist beliefs or practices, such as Gere, actor Steven Seagal, singer Tina Turner and Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson.
Concern over Tibet’s liberation from China has also thrust Buddhism to the forefront, as have cover stories in national news magazines like Time.
“There are some things about Buddhism that are very appealing,” said Shanta Premawardhana, pastor of Cornell Baptist Church in Chicago.
Premawardhana is a native of Sri Lanka, a country of 17 million people, 70 percent of whom are Buddhist. He said much of Buddhism’s popularity can be traced to the growing interest in Tibet, but also that Buddhism is attractive in its own right.
“Buddhism is as much a philosophy of life as a religion,” he said. “There is no belief in a personal deity, so it is in some ways an ethical system — detachment from worldly things. That may be one of the reasons why Buddhism seems appealing — a move away from materialism.”
Peter Chin agreed. “I know the reason” Buddhism is becoming more popular, said Chin, retired assistant director of the interfaith witness department of the North American Mission Board (formerly the Home Mission Board). “Most Americans are trying to look for something new, something different. Buddhism has a very good philosophy.”
Buddhism is a faith with about 300 million followers, mostly in Asian nations such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam and China. It began more than 2,500 years ago and is based on the teachings of Siddartha Gautama, who lived in India. Born about 550 B.C., Gautama became disillusioned with his existence, prompting a journey to find the meaning of life.
It was while sitting under a tree one day that Siddartha Gautama became “awakened” to the truth and thus became the first “Buddha,” a name meaning “Awakened One” or “Enlightened One.”
While many varied beliefs and schools of thought exist in Buddhism, there are some fundamental concepts. Buddhism teaches the Four Noble Truths (suffering, cause of suffering, overcoming suffering and the path leading to overcoming suffering). The steps to ending suffering are contained in the Eightfold Path: right understanding, right thinking, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, right meditation.
The ultimate goal of Buddhists is to reach Nirvana. “We often hear that, if one observes the Eightfold Path, he will reach Nirvana; but the truth is that, when one lives the Eightfold Path, his life is Nirvana,” writes Gyomay Kubose in his booklet, “American Buddhism.” “Nirvana is the condition of life where peace, harmony, and creative joy exist. The true life is the life of Nirvana.”
The last step of the Eightfold Path — right meditation — is possibly the main attraction to the Buddhist religion, according to Richard Brandon, a member of the Buddhist Temple of Chicago and president of the American Buddhist Association.
“I became attracted to the meditation part. I found something in meditation,” Brandon said. “Our society in general has a very go-go life. I found meditation as a way of touching myself — my peaceful nature.”
Meditation is something Christians can also benefit from, according to Premawardhana. “I find that meditation can be very complementary to our prayer,” he said. “In fact, I think Christian meditation exercises are very important in this fast-paced day and age. They help us to quiet our rushing minds, focus on Christ and listen for the ‘still small voice.’ Our prayer can be tremendously enriched if we learn how to listen to God.”
But while Christian meditation is focused on God and his Word, Buddhist meditation is based on self and finding inner peace. Buddhists do not believe in God, unless “God means the truth, the final reality of all things, and is the universe itself,” according to Kubose.
While many people may think Buddhists worship Buddha, Kubose notes that is a misconception, probably based “on the Buddha statues and images, which are symbols, not idols. A statue is a symbol in the same sense as the American flag is the symbol of our country.”
Another mistake in how Christians perceive Buddhism is relating it to the New Age movement. Premawardhana emphasized Buddhism is a “very well-rooted, well-established religious tradition. It is a very thoroughly grounded religion. It is not a passing fancy.”
Premawardhana said Buddhists’ detachment from material possessions is something Christians can admire — and can also use in witnessing to Buddhists.
“There’s a very important part of the gospel that really speaks something very similar,” Premawardhana said, referring to Jesus’s teachings about wealth and material goods. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
That can be an important place to begin a conversation with Buddhists. “Once you establish that we are similar in our ethical thinking, now Christians are able to inject into their conversation something that all religious people long for, but Buddhists do not have access to — namely, a relationship with a personal God, Jesus Christ,” Premawardhana said.
That relationship is what prompted Chin’s conversion to Christianity at age 15. He was raised as a Buddhist, but became a Christian through the witness of a missionary. His parents were saved shortly before he was.
“Just let them know that the Christian faith is not just the answers for life philosophically or religiously, it is life itself,” Chin said about witnessing to Buddhists. “Nearly all religions are looking for God, but Christianity comes to you. God himself provides the salvation.”
Christians should distinguish their faith and let Buddhists know Christianity is not just another religion, Chin said: “We’re talking about life. Life in Jesus.”

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth

    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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