Save Buddhism from Christian Missionaries: A Manifesto

Love, compassion, joy, and equanimity are some of the hallmarks of the teachings of Jesus. But those concepts didn’t originate with Jesus.

He found them tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the Torah. Almost every saying in the Sermon on the Mount is a commentary on passages from the Hebrew Scriptures. The genius of Jesus was the way in which he put his own “spin” on the Scriptures, highlighting and elevating the positive aspects of God’s personality, while ignoring and rejecting the negative aspects.

The ideals of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity weren’t the unique property of the Judaic tradition, however. They could also be found earlier, and further east, in what is now India, Nepal, Bhutan. In the Fifth Century before Jesus, a man named Gotoma developed a body of teachings based on what are called “The Four Immeasurables”:

1. Unconditional love: An unselfish interest in the welfare of all sentient beings;

2. Compassion towards everybody: Wanting others, without exception, to be free from suffering;

3. Sympathetic joy: Being happy with the good fortune of others;

4. Equanimity: Regarding every living being as equal, with no distinction between friend, enemy, stranger.

Gotama became known to history as The Buddha.

So: Where did The Buddha get his inspiration?

Can there be any doubt that the source was Divine? From where else could the inspiration have come? What source other than God could lead human beings so long ago to organize their lives around the high-minded concepts of selfless love and universal compassion? I submit that there is no other possible source.

If we recognize the divinely inspired nature of Buddhism, it stands to reason that adherents of the Buddhist way are already, to use Christian terminology, “sanctified.” They have divine approval. They’re accepted, by God, just as they are.

It then follows that it would be wrong to attempt to dissuade Buddhists from the Way they’ve been given. In fact, one could argue that the holy lives of many Buddhists put most Christians to shame, and that Christians could learn much at the feet of our Buddhist sisters and brothers.

In my mind it is shameful that, if Christian missionaries had their way, all Buddhists would be converted until not a single one were left. How much poorer the world would be without the Buddhist witness.

Given the above, I would like to call on all Mennonite mission agencies (in particular the Mennonite Mission Network and Eastern Mennonite Missions) to place a moratorium on proselytizing activities in Buddhist countries, and/or in countries where Buddhists are targeted for conversion.

At the same time, I call on Christian missionaries everywhere to consider changing their orientation with regard to the Buddhist world, to recognize that the light of divine truth may be found in that world as well.

I would encourage all Christians, in future, to visit Buddhist lands, with open hearts, not for the purpose of preaching, but rather to seek out the truth and beauty in Buddhist cultures, and to bring those discoveries home for the appreciation and edification of believers in their own countries.

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11 Responses to “Save Buddhism from Christian Missionaries: A Manifesto”

  1. DavidC Says:

    “I would encourage all Christians, in future, to visit Buddhist lands, with open hearts, not for the purpose of preaching, but rather to seek out the truth and beauty in Buddhist cultures, and to bring those discoveries home for the appreciation and edification of believers in their own countries.”

    Not to be a cynic, but this sounds a bit like reverse “proselytizing” (to use a term from the post). Wouldn’t a more appropriate course of action be to dialogue about the particulars of Buddhism and Christianity in order to see the relative strengths and weaknesses of each belief system–a sort of ‘iron sharpening iron,’ if you will? Perhaps some Buddhists will find themselves dissatisfied with their belief system and desire to convert to Christianity, and vice versa. Should we decide for them ahead of time that we won’t share our belief system so they don’t have the chance to consider its claims? While Christians, of course, must be non-coercive in their interaction with others, this view of other cultures as pristine seems a bit patronizing. In short, this post seems a bit too critical of the work of Christian (Mennonite) missionaries and uncritical of Buddhism in general.

  2. CharlieK Says:

    Thanks for your response.

    Why can’t Christians and Buddhists interact in the interest of discovering commonalities and points of agreement?

    Well, it would be great if this would happen. The reason it doesn’t happen (or happens rarely) is because of christianity’s claim to exclusive truth. When you become a Christian, you’re expected to sever ties with all other religious systems, even to condemn them as evil. (The christian god is very jealous.)

    I don’t think Buddhists carry the same attitude. For a Buddhist, reading the bible and/or being into Jesus won’t get you into trouble.

    But in christian circles (excluding the most liberal ones), it’s unacceptable to take a positive attitude towards Buddhism. The evangelical line towards Buddhists (and all non-christians) is that they are damned and can only be saved by accepting christianity’s exclusive truth.

    In my mind, it’s just wrong for religious groups to poach from each other’s ranks. And most religious poaching, historically, has been done by the christians.

  3. JJ Says:

    As a Buddhist, I like your thinking. There are not many people like you ~ Cheers !

  4. Stephen Says:

    If you say Christians shouldn’t try to convert Buddhists does that mean it’s OK to convert Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs? Is Buddhism equal (or superior) to Christianity while other faiths are inferior?

    I say this as a very very liberal Christian who does incorporate Buddhist ideas into my practice. But I don’t think you can say we will ban conversion. We need to leave conversion to God and simply enter into humble dialogue and see where the spirit takes us. For me this is what evangelism is, and I think it should be encouraged as much as possible.

  5. CharlieK Says:

    They’re sanctified because God gave them the gift of a way of being in the world which Buddhists have used for 2,500 years to purify their lives, to free them from wrong thought and action (what the bible calls sin).

    Obviously God did the sanctification thing differently for the inhabitants of the Ganges Plain in the 5th century BCE than for the inhabitants of the Jordan Valley.

    My argument is simply that a program which prioritizes selfless love and compassion towards all beings can only come from God. (Where else could it come from?) Granted, most Buddhists would not recognize their Way to have its source in the Divine realm. But for those of us who believe that God is Love, it follows that: anyplace in the world, anytime throughout history, where Selfless Love is manifested must have its ultimate source in the God’s Realm (even if those doing the manifesting don’t recognize or acknowledge where it comes from).

    So, if God is the inspiration behind the Buddhist Selfless Love program, it’s absurd to suggest that God would reject Buddhists who carry out the program God gave them. The Selfless Love program is the method by which God sanctifies them, purifies them, sets them apart.

    Since God didn’t send a Christ figure to the Buddhists, God must not have felt a dying-and-rising-savior paradigm was appropriate for Buddhist sanctification. Who are we to question God’s ways?

    I did see that piece in The Mennonite about reiki and chakras. In fact I shared it on my Facebook page, The Marginal Mennonite Society. A lot of us marginal Mennos are open to that kinda stuff. Sorry it gave you a negative reaction.

  6. DavidC Says:

    [Charlie: I wrote the following a few days ago, but for some reason, it’s been “awaiting moderation” that whole time. I’m going to split my comments into little pieces and see if that fixes the problem.]

    Thanks for your reply, Charlie. I still fear you have a bit of a jaundiced view of Christianity, evangelicalism, and “the Christian god,” and a bit of a rose colored view of Buddhism. Let me address a few specific examples to illustrate my point:

  7. DavidC Says:

    (1) “The reason it doesn’t happen (or happens rarely) is because of christianity’s claim to exclusive truth. When you become a Christian, you’re expected to sever ties with all other religious systems, even to condemn them as evil. (The christian god is very jealous.)”

    This comment elides a distinction between what we might call (a) alethic (or truth-bearing) exclusivism and (b) soteriological exclusivism, which needs to be kept in mind here. I’m afraid that (a) is common to (many forms of) both Christianity and Buddhism. In short, both religions are making claims about the way things really are, i.e., exclusive truth claims. In this sense, Buddhist doctrines are just as exclusivist as the doctrines of Christianity. Even the Dalai Lama, for example, holds strongly to a number of exclusive truth claims. But (a) should not be conflated with (b). One can hold to exclusive Christian doctrines without “condemning [other religions] as evil.” Sure, such condemnations have happened and continue today, but they are not entailed by (a). Indeed, many people who hold to (a) are nevertheless inclusivist or even universalist with regard to (b).

  8. DavidC Says:

    (2) “I don’t think Buddhists carry the same attitude. For a Buddhist, reading the bible and/or being into Jesus won’t get you into trouble.”

     Maybe or maybe not. I suspect it would depend on just how into the Bible and Jesus one got. At the same time, it seems that only in the most fundamentalist forms of Christianity would one “get into trouble” for reading Buddhist writings or exploring the person and teachings of Buddha. Indeed, even relatively conservative Christian philosophers (and professors at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) have written a recent book examining the doctrines and teachings of Buddhism. And while they predictably have certain critiques and ultimately affirm Christian (alethic) exclusivism, I think their approach is quite irenic and actually would serve as a good dialogue starter with a Buddhist. That’s just one example, of course.

  9. DavidC Says:

    (3) “But in christian circles (excluding the most liberal ones), it’s
    unacceptable to take a positive attitude towards Buddhism. The
    evangelical line towards Buddhists (and all non-christians) is that they
    are damned and can only be saved by accepting christianity’s exclusive
    truth.”

    Again, this is a gross over-generalization. See comments on (1) and (2) above.

  10. DavidC Says:

    (4) “In my mind, it’s just wrong for religious groups to poach from each
    other’s ranks. And most religious poaching, historically, has been done
    by the christians.”

    Well, when you put it in terms of “poaching,” it seems you have already stacked the deck in favor of your viewpoint! Another fun term for intra-Christian proselytizing is “sheep stealing.” But I’m not sure these terms are all that helpful in clarifying what the issues are. Yes, some missionaries are sent out rather crassly to “convert the heathen.” But many, particularly in the Mennonite fold, are sent out rather to offer “a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus,” and I’m not sure (the historical) Jesus would have any problem with being used in that fashion.

  11. DavidC Says:

    In short, while you may have a point to make here, I fear it is lost when you compare the worst forms of Christianity with the best of Buddhism, especially when you speak of these respective forms as though they are representative of the respective traditions as a whole. A bit more nuance and subtlety would go a long way toward making your case stronger, in my opinion.

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