Founder: Siddhartha Gautama, a prince from northern India
near modern Nepal who lived about 563-483 BC (The name is sometimes
written Siddhattha Gotama.)
Scriptures: Various, but the oldest and most authoritative
are compiled in the Pali Canon.
Adherents: About 400 million worldwide; approximately 2.5
million in the United States. (Source: Operation World)
Buddhism is the belief system of
those who follow the Buddha, the Enlightened One; a title given to its
founder. Saving oneself comes by following a regimen (path or ritual) and
by meditation and reciting mantas. There is no personal relationship with
the Buddha or any of the bodhisattvas (saviors who have foregone
nirvana to stay back and help others to achieve it). Worship is expressed
as adoration of the Buddha and one's ancestors. Buddhists struggle to
make sense of this life and to live out one's expected dharma
(required conduct) as the painful and slow road to moksha (salvation)
when all desire is eliminated and one achieves final and ultimate
Buddhism around the World
Today, Southeast Asia and
portions of East Asia are predominantly Buddhist. The religion has
evolved into three main schools:
1. Theravada or the Doctrine of the Elders (38%)
is followed in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia
(Kampuchea), and Vietnam. 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.
2. Mahayana or the Greater Vehicle (56%) is strong
in China, Korea, and Japan. Mahayana has accommodated many different beliefs
and worships the Buddha as a god. In Japan, one variation balances militant or
aggressive Buddhism by seeking tranquility and peace in the struggles of
3. Vajrayana or Diamond Vehicle also called
Tantric Buddhism or Lamaism (6%) is rooted in Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia.
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 Richard Gere and Tina Turner, and positive exposure in
major movies such as Seven Years in Tibet (1997), Kundun
(1997), The Little Buddha (1994), What's Love Got to Do with
It? (1993), and Siddhartha (1972). 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
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 these 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.
Gautama taught his philosophy to all social classes of India for 45 years
before dying at the age of 80 years old. Buddhism was soon adopted by
most of the people in India, achieving the zenith of popularity during the
reign of Emperor Asoka from 273 BC until 232 BC. During his life time,
Asoka sent Buddhist missionaries to preach Buddhism in South India, Ceylon (Sri
Lanka), Syria, Egypt, and Suvarnabhumi (Thailand). In the 10th century
AD, Islamic armies swept across India. Since they could not tolerate Buddhism
as a rival faith, they persecuted Buddhists to abandon their religion.
Buddhism was soon eliminated from the country where it began.
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. The Noble Eightfold
Path consists 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. One of the difficulties of learning about
Buddhism is that if you ask a person about Buddhism, he or she will describe
rituals and may not focus on the Buddhist belief system. Some major areas
of Buddhist belief 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 Cor. 4:18, NIV).
Meaningful Self: 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"
(Rom. 5:8, NIV).
Future Hope: 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"
(Rev. 21:4, NIV).
Moral Law: 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" (Rom. 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" (Eph. 2:8-9, NIV).
Desire: 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 Tim. 2:22, NIV).
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:
Right Views: Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life
(John 14:6), and there is salvation in no one else (Acts 4:12).
Right Aspiration: Fights and quarrels come from selfish
desires and wrong motives (Jas. 4:1-3); right desires and motives honor God (1
Right Speech: A day of judgment is coming when God will
hold men accountable for every careless word they have spoken (Matt.
Right Conduct: The one who loves Jesus must obey Him (John
14:21), and those who live by God's wisdom will produce good acts/fruit (Jas.
Right Livelihood: God will care for those who put Him first
(Matt. 6:31,33), and all work must be done for God's approval (2 Tim.
Right Effort: Like runners in a race, followers of Christ
must throw off every hindrance in order to give Him their best efforts (Heb.
Right Mindfulness: The sinful mind cannot submit to God's
law (Rom. 8:7), and disciples of Christ must orient their minds as He did
Right Contemplation: 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
When Witnessing to Buddhists
1. Remember that Buddhists have several special interests:
attempting to live according to the principles of the Eightfold Path
escaping from the suffering of endless life
finding peace through meditation (common in American Buddhism)
2. 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."
3. Emphasize the uniqueness of Christ.
4. Focus on the gospel message and do not get distracted by details of
5. 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 Eightfold Path").
6. While using bridge concepts, 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."
7. Share your own testimony, especially your freedom from guilt, assurance
of heaven (no more pain), and personal relationship with Christ.
8. Prepare with prayer. Do not witness in your own strength.
For further reading:
Into the Buddhist Mind by Gary & Evelyn Harthcock online
Original article written by Daniel R. Heimbach, Professor of Christian
Ethics, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, N.C.
Revised 2001 by N.S.R.K. Ravi, of the North American Mission Board, SBC.
Revised and Expanded 2005 by Mark Snowden, of the North American Mission Board,
Appreciation is expressed to J. O. Terry, Jr., for his insights.