This article is the second in the special series outlining how Seventh-day Adventists can share the Three Angels' Messages with important people groups.
“Oh! Your tree is beautiful,” my saffron-robed visitor exclaimed. “I know Christmas is a Christian festival. What is it all about?” Stalling for time, I took another sip of ice water on that dusty December day nearly two decades ago. My family had moved to tropical Laos the year before as tentmaking missionaries. How had we ended up in that Southeast Asian nation? During seminary studies, my wife and I had prayed for a place to pioneer the gospel of Christ. We talked with leaders and explored statistics in the Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook. Through much prayer, we settled upon Laos because it had no ordained pastors, only two organized churches, and a mere 277 members. Although there was no paid position for us, our young family went as volunteers knowing that God was leading. We arrived to a warm Adventist reception and fell in love with the people and landscapes of rice paddies, mountains, and pagodas.
The young monk sitting across from me had walked from Wat Ban Fai, a Buddhist temple two kilometers away, and was wanting to know the meaning of Christmas. Where should I begin?
Taking a deep breath, I launched in: “To understand Christmas, you first need to understand the story behind it.” Then, for twenty minutes, I told of creation, Adam and Eve’s disobedience bringing suffering and death, God’s promise of rescuing the world, and the birth of Jesus. Since I seemed to have an interested audience, I felt it would be unfortunate to stop there. I talked about Jesus’ life, miracles, and teachings. I shared about His death for us, His resurrection, and His ascension back to heaven with a promise to return and bring us with Him to heaven.
However, even as I was talking, I could tell my guest wasn’t impressed. At first his wide grin was encouraging, but soon I noticed he was snickering in the typical embarrassed way people do in uncomfortable social circumstances. Once I had finished my monologue, he changed the topic and a few minutes later, he took his leave. I felt disappointed and reviewed the conversation with my wife, trying to figure out what had gone wrong.
In the nearly two decades that have passed since that conversation, I have learned a lot. As I travel and share my experiences with my colleagues in church planting and soul winning around the world, I have the privilege of learning from them. Allow me to share a few insights.
Today, 8–10% of the world’s population identifies as Buddhist, making Buddhism the fourth largest world religion after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Although Buddhists are concentrated in Asia, the missionary religion has been spreading into Western societies since the mid-1800s. As the West secularizes, more and more people are exploring Buddhism and its associated practices such as meditation. Buddhism has been growing rapidly in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Austria, Australia, and other locations. Today, Los Angeles, CA, USA, has more Buddhist schools and learning centers than any city in Asia. In America, one in three Buddhists are Westerners who have converted from a JudeoChristian cultural background. So, whether you are serving as a local church elder in China or California, you would be wise to invest some time into learning about Buddhism and how best to share the blessings of Jesus with Buddhists.
The principal figure of Buddhism is, unsurprisingly, the Buddha—a title that means “enlightened one.” The religion does not depict him as a god, but as a model who found the way of liberation from the cycle of rebirth and suffering. His role is not as a god or divine savior, but as a teacher guiding others on their way to attaining nirvana. Although often confused with a celestial paradise, nirvana is not a place, but is understood to be the liberated condition. To attain nirvana, spiritual advances are achieved through moral discipline and meditation until the three root causes of suffering—greed, hatred, and ignorance—are extinguished and rebirth ceases. Named Siddhartha Gautama at birth, Buddha was a contemporary of the Hebrews Daniel, Nehemiah, and Esther.
So, what should I have done differently in sharing my faith in Jesus with the young Buddhist monk on my front porch twenty years ago?
First and foremost, it is important to understand that Buddhism, like Christianity, is an experiential religion. When Buddha arrived in ancient Kesaputta in modern day Bihar, India, his disciples announced him as the world’s preeminent authority on knowledge and truth. The citizens replied with perplexity, “All the ascetics and brahmins promote their teachings and deride all other gurus. How can we know what is truth?” Buddha instructed them to reject the claims of oral traditions and scriptures, and disregard logical argumentation and the authority of teachers. Rather, he advised that they “know for yourselves” what was true by determining whether the teachings lead to wholesomeness, blamelessness, welfare, and happiness. If so, then live in accordance with them. But if not, reject them (Anguttara Nikaya 3:65).
Didn’t Jesus teach something similar? Jesus warned against believing false prophets, saying, “You will know them by their fruits. . . . every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. . . . Therefore by their fruits you shall know them” (Matt 7:16–17, 20).1
Here is a good starting point for Buddhists: Begin by modeling the blessings you want them to experience in their own life. Show people how Jesus is changing you to be a loving and lovable human being. No, I don’t mean always smiling and speaking with sweet tones. Anyone can act this way. Rather, live a noble life of honesty, purity, and care for others. Admit quickly when you are in the wrong and be quick to apologize even if the problem wasn’t completely your fault. James writes, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (Jas 1:27). Jesus says, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16). The goal of this first phase of witnessing to a Buddhist is to gain their trust in the same way Jesus did.2
As you befriend Buddhists, privately and continually pray that Jesus will bless them and reveal Himself to them in a personal way. Pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal their needs to you so that you can work with wisdom, asking for guidance about what to say and do. Rather than witnessing by a formula, witness by faith. If the just are to live by faith (Hab 2:4), shouldn’t the just also witness by faith? Witnessing by human works and wisdom is powerless to convert hearts. If God is prompting each step, there is power in our witnessing and all success belongs to God.
The thing to remember about sharing Jesus with Buddhists is that your first focus should be about what He is doing to change you and bless you. Your focus should be on introducing them to Jesus and asking Jesus to reveal Himself to them in a special way, showing that He is real and cares for them, so that they come to faith. So the way to share your faith is to gossip about what Jesus is doing in your life and in your friends’ lives. Don’t only share how He blessed you ten or twenty years ago; keep your stories current. If you have a vibrant relationship and prayer life with Jesus, you will always have something current to share. The impact on your Buddhist friend should be pleasure and a desire to have the same experience. If they respond positively, don’t hesitate to offer to pray for Jesus to bless them.
Something else you can do is share tracts that tell how Jesus blesses people.3 Remember, the goal in this second step is to bless a Buddhist with an encounter with Jesus, leading them to believe that He is real and that He cares for them.
The third step of blessing Buddhists involves two main activities—joining your Buddhist friends to your Adventist friends and introducing them to the salvation Jesus offers. Be sure that the friend group you draw them into are those who also have a vibrant and open lifestyle with Jesus. As your Buddhist friends are welcomed and join such a group, they will experience belonging and belief in Jesus will strengthen more quickly. The fellowship should include plenty of socializing and play, but never without spiritual encouragement and prayer. If you share genuinely and in a natural way about your experiences with Jesus, the Holy Spirit will be present, and your Buddhist friends will be drawn to Jesus.
When it comes to sharing about salvation in Jesus, it is important to know that this should be done after they have already discovered that Jesus is real. Don’t get ahead of the Holy Spirit. Once they encounter Christ, they will naturally have questions. Answer the questions—not in a heavy and exhaustive way, but by sharing the stories of what Jesus did and taught on earth, and what the salvation is that He offers. The goal is to lead them to a place where they desire to become followers of Jesus.
Buddhists have a different concept of sin and death than Christians do. The Bible teaches that sinfulness is rebellion from God and that death is the conclusion that sin leads us toward because sin separates us from the source of life—our Creator. Because every human being is born with a sinful nature, we lean toward rebellion from God and self-destruction. Only God can cure us and give us power to become like Him. Only God can forgive the guilt that we possess because of our willful disobedience to His law of love.
On the other hand, Buddhists understand sin as a misdeed or the suffering that results from former bad deeds. Buddhists believe that the only way to deal with immorality is to choose to be moral. They believe there is no God who can forgive past immorality or who will change our hearts to become moral beings. Buddhists have a neutral view of human nature, believing that people are capable of being pure through self-discipline and meditation. Death is not viewed as the fruit of sin, but a natural doorway to the next life. The idea of eternal life may be attractive to some Buddhists, but Buddhist doctrine views eternal life as a delusion and that if eternal life could exist, it would be eternal suffering. As far as going to heaven, Buddhism names twenty-six heavens. When a human being dies, it is believed that they are born back into this world, into hell, or into one of the heaven planes and that one will remain in that realm until their karma dictates the timing of death and rebirth into another life plane. This process goes on for innumerable rebirths. The only release from this transience of life is to attain nirvana, which is described as a permanent condition that is neither life nor death.
When well-meaning Christians focus their witnessing on salvation from suffering by believing in Jesus and having eternal life in heaven, most Buddhists aren’t impressed. Instead, we have found that Buddhists are attracted to the concepts that Jesus heals our hearts to be wise and to desire purity and compassion. Secondly, rather than preaching about heaven, our focus has been on the creation of a new heaven and new earth where life is completely different—it is a permanent condition of joy and harmony with all beings—with no more death. I share the following Bible texts: Isaiah 66:22, 2 Peter 3:10–13, and especially Revelation 21:1–8.4
As your Buddhist friend continues to receive God’s blessings into their life, it is only natural to ask them if they will choose to become a follower of Jesus. When they affirm that this is their desire, plan a special service to bless them as a new disciple of Jesus, presenting them with a Bible and inviting them to begin Bible studies and prepare for baptism. This ceremony formally welcomes them into a new identity of being a Christian as they prepare to become a member of the family of God. It also transforms their focus from being the recipient of Jesus’ blessings to an ambassador of Jesus and sharing His blessings with others.
The next step of blessing Buddhists is to then study the story of redemption with them from the creation of the world to the creation of the new earth. The focus in the study should always be upon the question: so what? What does this mean for my living today? The goal of reading these Bible stories, along with the topical studies on Bible doctrine, is for them to learn that the Bible is a source of truth and to form their relationship with Jesus. The Bible tunes their ear to know God’s voice so that when they pray, seeking wisdom for their lives, they will be walking in harmony with Him.
As I think back nearly two decades to the conversation with the monk on my front porch, I have sadness that I didn’t understand these principles then that I know now. But I am also thankful for that failure because it drove me to research these things and learn the importance of focusing on blessing Buddhists rather than preaching to them. Over the past two decades of working to bless Buddhists, I have witnessed the sick healed, the jobless employed, the depressed encouraged, the demon oppressed set free, the fearful at peace, the addicted released, the selfish made selfless, and the isolated filled with joy—all in the loving name of Jesus. As Buddhists learn that Jesus is real, and that Christianity is all about knowing and obeying God’s voice, and being a blessing to others as we prepare for eternity on the earth made new, they respond eagerly to Jesus.
1 All biblical quotations are from the NKJV.
2 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1905), 143.
3 My wife and I wrote a tract for Buddhists with this in mind, titled Jesus Can Help. It is printed by GLOW Tracts and can be ordered through your local Adventist Book Center or from GLOW directly at https:// www.glowonline.org.
4 You can also share resources produced by the Global Mission Center for East Asian Religions (see below), including a GLOW tract titled A Better Future.
Gregory P. Whitsett is the director of the Center for East Asia Religions, Adventist Mission, at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, MD, USA.