A Response to Mission Frontiers: The Fingerprints of God in Buddhism (Nov/Dec 2014)

from OMF Thailand

Dear Readers

With every issue of Mission Frontiers we seek to provide you with cutting-edge strategic insights into how we can overcome the obstacles to world evangelization and more quickly reach each of the remaining unreached people groups. God is working through his servants around the world to create breakthroughs among the unreached. When a breakthrough does occur we want to learn what strategies and practices God is using so we can share them with the rest of the Church and hopefully quicken the pace of world evangelization. This is what we sought to do with our Nov-Dec 2014 issue on Buddhism. As with any new cutting-edge strategy or “technology” there are varying perspectives on their worth or value. Our friends at OMF Thailand expressed to us some disagreement with some aspects of the content of this issue on Buddhism. In the interest of promoting an ongoing, respectful dialog with our readers over the content of each issue, below we are presenting the response we received from OMF Thailand. Following their comments we are also providing a response from the guest editor who was responsible for the content featured in this particular issue. We hope that this stimulating dialog will contribute to greater understanding of the various viewpoints in mission strategy as we move forward to bring access to the gospel for every person, tribe and tongue.

God Bless,

Rick Wood
Editor in Chief
Mission Frontiers

 

Written by David D. Chang with recommendations from the OMF Thailand Strategy Council

OMF Thailand would like to commend Mission Frontiers for dedicating an issue to address the challenges of missions in the context of folk Theravada Buddhism. The various writers in this issue attempted to find an answer to the question, “What is it going to take to see large number of Buddhists turn to Christ?” The missionaries of OMF Thailand affirm this longing. We also appreciate the contributors who stimulated critical reflection, discussion and prayer for the Buddhist world. We agree that various mistakes were made by both Western and non-Western missions. There is still a great need to discover ways to communicate the gospel meaningfully to the Buddhist mindset. What then are the problems with some suggestions presented in this issue? While there are some good proposals by a few writers, there are also serious concerns regarding a naïve and unbiblical approach towards Buddhism, a disconnection with on-the-ground reality, a distancing from the growing national church, and a dangerous promotion of syncretism.

Problematic approach towards Buddhism

In the lead article entitled “The Fingerprints of God in Buddhism,” Chris Bauer wrote, “But could it be that how we are interpreting Buddhism puts us off target altogether? Could it be that we have never really understood Buddhism and what it is all about?” This is an unfounded and misleading statement. Have we misunderstood Buddhism? Numerous missionaries and Thai nationals have studied Buddhism carefully. Rev. Bantoon and Mrs. Mali Boon-itt stated accurately, 

“We see from the Bible that message contextualization is a crucial issue…This means explaining the significance of what Christ did on the cross to Buddhists in carefully selected terms that they can understand and are meaningful in their lives. It does not simply mean taking Buddhist terms to replace Christian terms. Doing so will be negatively perceived by Buddhists.”

Rather than accepting Buddhist terminologies indiscriminatingly, or adding meaning to Buddhist concepts in order for the Christian gospel to “fit like an engine into an empty car,” Buddhism should be acknowledged as it is. 

Bauer is correct in stating, “We need to get an understanding of what Buddhism really is.” But can Buddhism really stay Buddhism—as Bauer claims—with or without God? Bauer’s assertion here is not only misleading, but a misrepresentation of existing Buddhist teachings. Theravada Buddhist teachers from Sri Lanka to Thailand to England readily refute the Creator God. “It is not difficult to find in Buddhist texts attacks on the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, all-good Creator of the universe.[1] Even in folk Buddhism, the gods (deva) are not the Supreme Being.

Tan Kang-San, a former Buddhist expressed, “In a genuine Christian-Buddhist encounter, sooner or later, both parties will discover that central to their different system of beliefs is the polarity between theism and atheism.”[2] Eventually, followers of Buddhism advocate a path of salvation through self-effort rather than dependence upon the finished-work of Christ. In order to engage in any kind of honest Christian witness, we must understand the teachings of Buddhism more accurately and plainly. Tan further stated, “Widespread ignorance among Christians and caricatures of Buddhist beliefs are no long tenable in multi-faith contexts where Buddhists are increasingly informed and instructed of their religious teachings.”3[3]

We can agree with Bauer that our aim is not to quarrel over wrong beliefs. We can recognize positive things in Buddhism, and we can certainly make friends with Buddhists. However, Bauer’s view of Buddhism lacks biblical grounding, because he mishandled Romans 1:20. The “eternal and divine fingerprints of God” in this verse does not refer to the philosophies of religious teachers, but refer to the invisible qualities of God himself revealed through creation (Read the verse carefully in the ESV or Greek). The Apostle Paul went on to argue that although human beings were created with an innate knowledge of God, they refused to acknowledge their Creator, but instead gave glory to idols (Rom 1:18-23).[4]

Buddha actually taught against idolatry, and his philosophies are certainly far more sophisticated than folk religions, which include popular folk Buddhism. But Buddha’s teachings are to be considered a form of response to the general revelation of God, not “a masterful preparation for the good news.”[5] Missiologist Alex Smith demonstrated the enormous difficulties in helping Buddhists understand grace and substitution.[6] Christians should recognize that there are elements of culture and religion that can be redeemed, but religious teachings are also used by “the god of this age who has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4).[7] Buddhism should not be seen merely as a form of Thai cultural expression, but it is a system of
beliefs and practices that conflict with the gospel of Christ. 

Disconnection with on-the-ground reality

The article by Jay Judson entitled “Longing for the Heavenly City” appears encouraging at first. What great news if there is indeed a movement of 42,500 Buddhist background believers that took place within a few years! However, a further examination is needed. Judson attributes the movement to contextualized worship (such as the use of bells and Buddhist phrases), as well as simple methods (a nine year-old girl as the best preacher among 200 churches). The problem is: these kinds of methods have been tried continually in other Buddhist ministry contexts. Using the word sathu instead of amen, contextual illustrations, children repeating Bible stories to their family members have all been done in other locations, but not with similar results.

It is important to distinguish a miraculous anomaly from a proven pattern. Can a child tell the gospel and lead many to Christ? Of course this can happen. But what we see repeatedly in Thailand, based on a research conducted by Marten Visser, is that older people are the best evangelists and young people are often not free to respond until they become adults.[8] Research also shows that most Buddhists need to hear the gospel multiple times through many different contacts before they believe. These are recognized patterns throughout the Thai Buddhist context. We are not trying to limit what God can do in any situation, but we are concerned whether Judson’s descriptions coincide with reality in the Buddhist world. The suggestions in this issue by David Stuart are actually more solid, realistic and encouraging: Be patient, instill a sense of trust, and do not assume a blank slate when we begin ministry among Buddhists!

Distancing from the growing national church

The article “New Wineskins” by Marie Bauer contains a few stimulating suggestions. The Shan believers should be encouraged to develop their own indigenous worship and to study the Bible for themselves. We share in the distress that Shan believers may lack confidence and feel overpowered by influences coming from Thai Christians. We can also sympathize with the frustration concerning the Thai church’s tendency towards formality, power distance in relationships and institutionalization, which are normal cultural values in Thai society. But is it our job to protect Shan believers from fellowship with Thai Christians? While Marie Bauer is convinced that the SC strategy is the best way forward, she may have unknowingly allowed herself to develop a paternalistic attitude by expressing, “A fledgling Shan believer does not have what it takes to disagree with or stand up against what the Thai church tells him/her is right and wrong.”

Sensitivity to the needs of minority groups is needed. However, Marie Bauer displays an overly negative attitude towards the existing Thai church. It just might be that the consensus among 250,000 ethnic Thai Christians, 160,000 of whom were born in Buddhist families, on what to do and not to do during Buddhist ceremonies is wiser than Marie Bauer’s personal conclusions. The reality is that the growing Thai church is here to stay, and contact or partnership with the national church is unavoidable. Rather than distancing themselves from Thai Christians, minority groups including Shan Christians need to find a way towards healthy interactions without losing their cultural identity.

To say that the Thai church is only doing what was modeled and taught to them by Western missionaries is simplistic and inaccurate. The Thai church has been growing for generations, and gone through the process of indigenization in a variety of contexts. What may appear Western on the surface may actually be truly Thai underneath. Westerners may think that to be truly Thai means liking traditional art, using Thai music instruments, or sitting on the floor during worship. But in reality, most Thais are embracing modernity and do not want to live in the past. Dynamic contextualization means communicating the gospel in an ever-changing society. Thai Christianity is growing and gaining more recognition from the wider Thai society. The Queen of Thailand recently stated that Thais can be Buddhists, Muslims or Christians! This is why a movement away from a “Thai Christian” identity towards “New Buddhism” may not be helpful.

Dangerous Promotion of Syncretism

While using the term “New Buddhist” by Thai believers may spark an interest in evangelism as suggested by Banpote Wetchgama, is it helpful and biblical for those who have turned to Christ to avoid being called Christians? Banpote pointed out that the term “Christian” was an insult, but the Scripture actually exhorts us not to be ashamed of the name! 1 Peter 4:14-16 clearly stated, “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ…If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”[9]

More importantly than what name we prefer to be called—is how we live. Believers must live in obedience to Scripture, and this is not possible unless Thais “turn from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thes 1:9). There are external forms of religion and culture that are simply displeasing to God, because they involve idolatry (see Lausanne Covenant below).[10] Jiraphon Serithai suggested, “If we present Him for Thai Buddhists to choose, He will go and sit on the throne of their hearts, even though He might be sitting with all the gods that are hanging on their necks,” and “God will not feel uncomfortable or condemn us. He is very pleased and desires to be with them even though they might wear ten gods around their neck.” At what point are people called to repent and turn from idols?

Many Thais would like to add Jesus to their assortments of gods, but will Jesus be pleased? “Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy” (1 Cor 10:22a)? God is holy, and contrary to what Jiraphon wrote, God’s name can be tainted and disgraced (Eze 20:39). Churches in the New Testament struggled with this precise issue and were commanded to flee from idolatry (1 Cor 10:14, 1 John 5:21). As argued earlier, certain practices in religion cannot merely be considered neutral, but they are an act of rebellion against the Creator. It is wonderful to present Jesus as loving and welcoming. We should also encourage new converts to stay connected as much as possible with their families and social network. But at certain point, a true follower of Jesus must turn from sin, take up their cross and risk rejection from non-believers.

OMF Thailand would like to put forth these concerns for the contributors of Mission Frontiers and its readers. Missionaries should be wary of an overly simplistic approach towards Buddhism—not taking the time to really understand Buddhism, or seeing Buddhism as purely a cultural expression. Be cautious of exaggerated accounts that seem disconnected with reality. Communicate the gospel patiently and study the actual patterns that will lead to a movement. Preventing new believers, from minority or majority groups, from interacting with the national church refuses to take into account what God is doing through the existing national church, ignores the issue of dynamic contextualization, and undermines the new believers’ ability to become part of and learn from God’s worldwide family. Be on guard against syncretism, which overlooks repentance, and allows the Christian faith to coexist with idolatry. Making a mistake in any of these areas will only create greater hindrances to the gospel in the folk Buddhist world. We sincerely recommend further reflections upon these matters and welcome your feedback.

 

Signed by members of the OMF Thailand Strategy Council on February 10, 2015:
Mark Leighton, Becky Leighton, Marten Visser, Ulrich Kohler, Jeff Callow, Eng Kiat Ng, Jesse Kroll, Rene Aeschimann, David Chang


[1] Tan Kang San, “Genesis 1-11 and Buddhist Scriptures: How the Gospel Can Transform Buddhist Worldviews” in Communicating Christ in the Buddhist World, Eds., Paul De Neui and David Lim (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2006) Kindle L556. Tan referred to Paul Williams, the President of the UK Association for Buddhist studies and Professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy at University of Bristol. Paul Williams, The Unexpected Ways: On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism. Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 2002.

[2] Ibid., Kindle L560.

[3] Ibid., Kindle L709.

[4] For a fuller discussion on Don Richardson’s proposals in Eternity in Their Hearts and how we should approach adherents of other faiths, see David J. Hesselgrave,Paradigms in Conflict (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2005) 72-74, 81-114.

[5] While Buddha rejected the worship of idols, he also rejected God. General revelation refers to what God has revealed about himself through creation, and specific revelation refers to the Scriptures – both Old and New Testament. Teachings of world religious leaders outside of Scripture cannot be equated with general revelation, but they should be seen as a form of response to God, whether the response is faith or unbelief.

[6] Alex G. Smith, “Transfer of Merit in Folk Buddhism” in Sharing Jesus Holistically with the Buddhist World, Eds., David Lim and Steve Spaulding (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2005), 99-124.

[7] Peter Beyerhaus proposed a view of religion as coming from three sources: human, divine and demonic. See Tan Kang San, Communicating Christ in the Buddhist World, L508.

[8] Marten Visser, Conversion Growth of Protestant Churches in Thailand (Zoetermeer, Netherlands: Boekencentrum, 2008), 130-131.

[9] Since the name “Christian” is taken directly from English and sounds foreign, Thais believers may want to use the name Christsasanikachon, Christachon, or Luk Prao Chao. Using the name Puttasasanikachon mai or “New Buddhists” has been promoted, but rejected by both the existing Protestant and Buddhist communities in most of Thailand. Continual usage of the term will only lead to sectarianism, ongoing distancing from the body of Christ and unnecessary criticism from Thai Buddhists.

[10] See the Lausanne Covenant point 10 on Evangelism and Culture: “Culture must always be tested and judged by Scripture. Because men and women are God’s creatures, some of their culture is rich in beauty and goodness. Because they are fallen, all of it is tainted with sin and some of it is demonic. The gospel does not presuppose the superiority of any culture to another, but evaluates all cultures according to its own criteria of truth and righteousness, and insists on moral absolutes in every culture.” http://www.lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant (accessed Feb 4, 2015).

 


Guest Editor Response

We, the contributors of Mission Frontiers appreciate OMF Thailand's thoughtful response to “The Fingerprints of God in Buddhism” Mission Frontiers issue 36:6 Nov/Dec 2014. OMF Thailand has raised significant concerns and we are eagerly reflecting on them. Some of the concerns raised focus on issues that cannot be explored through a blog in an adequate way. For these deeper, complicated concerns, we suggest engaging in conversation in more academic or other appropriate publications. We too share many of the concerns raised, however, we feel that OMF Thailand drew unintended meaning from the articles. Therefore, this discussion can be tremendously fruitful if we engage over time and in appropriate venues, addressing issues that normally don’t surface.

We look forward to seeing large numbers of Buddhists experiencing the fullness of Christ as well as discovering ways God seems to reveal himself.

We recognize and value the contribution of OMF Thailand missionaries over the years, many of whom we have personally had the privilege of working with. We praise God for the fruit that has come as a result of their ministries and continue to bless OMF Thailand. It is our hope that honest, open dialogue will lead to greater understanding, progress, and openness to try new things.

I would like to address OMF Thailand’s concerns in a reverse order, starting with:

Dangerous Promotion of Syncretism

OMF Thailand asserts that “Banpote pointed out that the term 'Christian' was an insult, but the Scripture actually exhorts us not to be ashamed of the name!” Yet Banpote never said we should be ashamed of the Gospel of Christ or of the person of Jesus.

Though some read 1 Peter 4:14-16 as instructing us to say “I am a Christian” others read it differently. These others see Peter instructing people to not be ashamed of identifying themselves with Christ. The label “Christian” as we use it today was not Peter’s point. This latter perspective is the one we adopt.

Nowadays, many people all over the world self-identify as Christian. They may or may not be followers of Christ. They use this term because they want to be identified by others as being part of a socio-cultural or ethnic group. This makes it complicated for those who want to be identified as a follower of Christ but who do not want to be seen as part of another socio-cultural group, an identity that also has significant antinomian connotations.

In this light, is it appropriate to require those from Buddhist socio-cultural-religious communities who follow Jesus to call themselves “Christian” just because they now know, love, and follow Jesus? If these followers of Christ cut themselves off from their communities, they may erect strong barriers. Is it right to erect these barriers or is it better to remain within their communities so they can bear witness to what Christ has done for and in them? Is it truly our responsibility to tell Buddhists who want to follow Christ that they cannot unless they adopt a label that is culturally loaded with morally repugnant connotations, connotations that Jesus would not want to adopt? 

In her sentence “If we present Him for Thai Buddhists to choose, He will go and sit on the throne of their hearts, even though He might be sitting with all the gods that are hanging on their necks,” Jiraphon Serithai spoke about a process. This is indicated by the words “present Him… to choose”. At this time in their journeys Thai Buddhists have not yet chosen Christ; they are simply moving forward in considering Jesus. This process is happening because Jesus has taken a special place in their hearts.

Jiraphon’s emphasis is that Jesus “desires to be with them” in the same way he desired to be with tax collectors and sinners (Mt 11:19). These tax collectors and sinners started to place Jesus in a special place in their hearts as they experienced the love and grace of God. This was happening while they were still in their circumstances, trying to understand what was actually happening before them. At that point they still wore “ten gods around their neck”.

Of course the question arises “At what point are people called to … turn from idols?”

There will come a point in time, after they have experienced the grace of God, after they have come to understand who Jesus is and what all he has done for them and longs to do in them means.  Jiraphon seems to be saying that it is the Holy Spirit who will teach them these things.

In conclusion, what Jiraphon describes is a journey of experiencing grace through non-condemnation. Will Thai Buddhists find Christ if we first and foremost talk about idol worship? Why not talk about the whole underlying fear first that drove them to amulets? She is not endorsing that anyone continue in idol worship; she is describing a process. So, we feel the concern that Jiraphon is promoting syncretism is not warranted.  It is our understanding that neither Banpote or Jiraphon promote syncretism.

Distancing from the growing national church

Is it the responsibility of Christ’s followers to protect Shan believers from a culturally dominant religious community that is overpowering fledgling Shan believers? Yes, we feel that Christ’s representatives have this responsibility, especially when it comes to dismissing Shan culture, Shan language and forcing non-Shan cultural values onto a few Shan believers.

Would Thai believers appreciate it if missionaries stopped engaging with the Thais in the Thai language and only spoke English, actively spreading Western values? Not allowing Thais to freely be Thai? No, they would not because that would be paternalistic. In addition, it would be appropriate for a missionary to protect Thai culture and Thai believers from western cultural domination expressing itself in western socio-cultural-religious forms. 

Can anyone rightly claim to speak for 160,000 Thai Christians? Is it really possible that Thai speaking Christians born into Buddhist families have much understanding of Shan ceremonies, especially since there is barely even a handful of ethnic Thais who speak Shan fluently?

Even my own knowledge only comes from over a decade living among the Shan and speaking their language. Can it really be that OMF Thailand is promoting the dominance of the Thai church over ethnic minorities?

In the article and with specific regard to incense, my Shan friend was not told what to do. The idea was hers alone. She was pointed to the Bible rather than being given the “right answers.” Providing the right answer for her would not have facilitated the development of her capacity for critical thinking, and it would also have been a bit paternalistic.

Being in a position of losing one’s cultural identity is already problematic (and it seems like this is the unfortunate reality among the Shan in Thailand). In this light, by suggesting that the Shan “need to find a way towards healthy interactions without losing their cultural identity” while promoting the dominance of the Thai national church appears insensitive to the difficulties the Shan experience. How can it be suggested that they simply accept the situation as it is? Moreover, could not the Thai believers take the step to encourage the Shan to flourish in their Shan-ness?

Bill Smith said: “Don’t take them to church, make them the church.” We believe in the unity of the global body of Christ. We also believe that at the local level that for the fellowship of believers with one another to be truly life-giving it will take place when people come to Christ in families, in communities, rather than as individuals. God desires to transform people’s already existing communities into places of meaningful fellowship.

In addition, the role and power of the patron-client culture should not be underestimated. For a description of the patron-client culture and how it impacts the Thai church, see Steve Taylor’s article in the online edition of Mission Frontiers Nov/Dec 2014. One would expect this to be carried over and negatively impact Thai-Shan relationships.

Disconnection with on-the-ground reality

The issue only had one article that referred to numbers of believers. The emphasis of the issue was on letting the authors tell their story in their own way. Jay Judson chose to mention how many believe in Christ in order to give glory to God for what He is doing. Jay can verify his numbers. The easiest way to find this out is by getting in contact with him. Jay is reporting on a movement in which a normal believer shares her faith with another person and that other person finds to Jesus and in turn does the same. It appears that this movement is reproducing and it is multiplying across generations. Is God actually doing something here? If He is, then it seems inappropriate to dismiss the work of God as “a miraculous anomaly” that doesn’t teach us anything. If we dismiss a few people finding Christ as not enough and tens of thousands as a miraculous anomaly, there is not much at all we are able to learn from. If being disconnected from on-the-ground realities leads to such movements, I want to be disconnected from on-the-ground realities, too!

Problematic approach towards Buddhism: naive and unbiblical

Approaches toward Buddhism need to be discussed more thoroughly in scholarly missiological journals and in other venues. This is because the issues are not clear cut as they may appear and they are certainly not that easily grasped either. In fact the MF issues we were only able to scratch the surface of these complex issues. If these issues spawn articles in scholastic journals, our efforts will be more than rewarded. 

First, we are not attempting accept Buddhist terminology indiscriminatingly. Neither did we advocated for the Thai church using Buddhist terminology per se. Second, “acknowledging  Buddhism as it is” seems to come from an essentialist perspective. Essentialism is a valid perspective for certain groupings of any of the high religions. Nonetheless, to view a high religion with millions of adherents solely through an essentialist lens is a bit simplistic. It appears that as it is held and practiced at the grassroots levels there are different varieties of Buddhisms.

OMF Thailand pointed out that Buddhism has no godhead that is the Creator God. Which does not come as a surprise as even Brahman is not seen as the creator godhead in the biblical sense. And it should not be difficult to show that almost none of the many religions of that time had such a godhead. At one time in history “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (Rom 1:21) and the consequences were very much existent during Buddha’s time, and even before. So it is safe to assume, Buddha did not know God.

However, this is not the crux of the issue. The real question is: What about God’s invisible qualities? Is it possible to observe His invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature without attributing them to God? It appears so and this appears to be included in what is said in Romans 1:19: “God made it plain to them”. God made these plain to Buddha; but he did not attribute them to God.

So what are these invisible qualities?

Permanence, knowledge, metta (love), karuna (kindness), to list just a few. These are some that Buddha observed and they are part of what some people call general revelation. They are simple truths understood by Buddha, even if he lacked knowledge of God.

Therefore, could a Buddhist attribute them to God? In other words, could a Buddhist build a (biblical) understanding of those terms if he put his trust in God?

It appears that a Buddhist could because these qualities are part of the general revelation that Buddha got from God whether he knew God or not. Hence this revelation could be seen as a preparation for the Good News.

So if Buddhists interpret these terms from the vantage point that there is a God, what would the result be?

However, Buddhists are often perceived to be atheistic? Are they actually allowed to believe in God[1]?

As far as Buddha was concerned, not in a Brahminical godhead. Nonetheless, the biblical God is not the same as the Brahminical godhead, Brahman. We cannot compare apples with oranges. What Buddha pointed out to the Brahmins was that there is no atman[2] within karma, no permanence, no knowledge, only death and suffering and desire. While anatta (no atman), impermanence, ignorance, death, suffering and desire are karmic; permanence, knowledge, and metta (love), karuna (kindness) and other are nibbanic. God revealed to Buddha His invisible qualities and Buddha placed them in the nibbana realm.

But did the Brahmins at Buddha’s time acknowledge those godly qualities or did they attribute them to themselves by using the construct of atman which can be understood as the transmigrating spirit that is Brahman? While nowadays atman is translated as soul/ self (and anatta = not atman as not-self or no-soul), etymologically, this is misleading. Atman, while difficult to translate, is closer to “breath” and therefore is more related to the idea of ‘spirit’, in a similar way as ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek. The Brahminical concept of the “immortal atman” was what Buddha was against, hence his anatta doctrine: There is no such thing as an immortal soul or an immortal spirit. Now let’s check how unbiblical that really is: Immortality is coming only from God, we humans have nothing innately that makes us immortal. It was the lie of the snake that we are immortal. So our soul is not immortal but can only be made immortal by God, but what about our spirit? Being aware that I am massively simplifying the concept of spirit, roughly it is that our human spirit is not alive and is not able to make a connection to God by itself, in other words our spirit is dead.

While anatta, impermanence, ignorance, death, suffering and desire are karmic; permanence, knowledge, and metta (love), karuna (kindness) and other are nibbanic. Buddha found God’s invisible qualities and he took them out of the karma realm and made put them into the nibbana realm. This shows where we have to go to find immortality, permanence, life, no death and no suffering: in the kingdom of God.[3]

So far, Christians have tried to convince Buddhists that the kingdom of God is karmic and that God himself is karmic by simply using karmic terms for God (PhraChao in Thai) and kingdom of God/ heaven (sawan in Thai). This means we Christians are making God and the kingdom of God karmic, basically communicating that the Christian God is not permanent, not beyond death, not full of knowledge, not un-conditioned.[4] This is the kind of god that Buddha was against because this kind of karmic god cannot help anyone. As a consequence, this kind of God is perceived as irrelevant.  Unfortunately, Buddhists do not have any other means to understand “god” except in karmic terms. The Christian approach to Gospel proclamation has been to proclaim this kind of karmic god to them, trying to convince them that such a god can help them.

While missionaries reject such a heretical understanding, missionaries are the ones who inadvertently have been promoting this heresy.  Is this insensitivity to what is proclaimed the reason why after 180 years there are only 0.5% ethnic Thai believers?

So, why is this an important issue to discuss. It appears that Jesus’ representatives inadvertently promote an unbiblical understanding of who God is. Then when someone comes to faith that person is extracted from their families and encouraged to change communities. They are to insist that Buddhism (the reified and essentialized version) is wrong and the Christian religion is right, thus perverting the Good News into a fleshly change of religion.

Why is this? It is because Jesus’ representatives could not accept that God could possibly leave His fingerprints within the socio-cultural-religious phenomenon called Buddhism. This is a tragedy!

The writers feel that it is time that this kind of naive and unbiblical approach to Buddhism and the Good News change.

We agree that Jesus’ representatives in Thailand should engage in a long conversation about these issues. Why is nirvana the best word we can find for the kingdom of God, why does it represent the biblical truth in the most accurate way, and why is it not an abuse of Buddhist terminology[5]? Can it be that Buddha’s thoughts were far deeper than negating mono-theism?

In addition, we encourage further discussion about the understanding of spirit, soul, atman, anatta, ruach and pneuma. What are the exact similarities between eternal and permanence? Why would it be appropriate (and necessary) for Buddhists to view God as the Permanent, as Knowledge, as Life instead of impermanent, ignorance and karmic (which includes death and suffering)?

We invite further dialogue on these missiological issues. Hopefully such a dialogue can take place in a safe environment without portraying those moving the conversation forward as promoting syncretism, exaggerating accounts, or adopting unbiblical approaches towards Buddhism. We also hope that clarifying what was meant in these articles will help direct the conversation in a positive direction.



[1] Buddhadasa rejected “God” as a person, god in phasakhon, but he didn’t reject God in phasatham, God as dhamma. (Boon-It 2007) What we see here is that ‘person’ in the Christian understanding and in the Buddhist understanding are not comparable, why and how so has to be explored further.

[2] Translating atman as spirit instead of self or soul will mean that anatta is a non-existing or dead spirit, completely incapable to get us anywhere, let alone overcoming suffering and death, which is exactly what Buddha discovered. Clinging to the idea of an immortal atman will not get anyone to nirvana, liberation, or enlightenment. There is no immortal soul/spirit within the karma realm.

[3] If looking for God and for the Spirit, for permanence and knowledge, for no death and no suffering in nirvana is unbiblical, how can it be biblical to actively place God into the Buddhist karmic heaven?

[4] Why did Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhadasa) confuse God with karma and taught that the biblical God is ignorance (“Therefore, for Buddhadasa, God is a combination of nescience (อวิชชา) and karma. In that he was the creator he was avijja (อวิชชา); in his providence and as judge he is karma (กรรม).” quoted by Petchsongkram “Talk in the Shade of the Bo Tree”, 1975, page 21 )? It would be interesting to examine the cause of this confusion, especially in light of what Buddhadasa said in other places as those were way more positive.

[5] Payutto was against the use of Buddhist language for Christians, as Catholics have attempted this already. What Payutto was against was incorporating Buddhism into Christianity and thus show the superiority of Christianity. (Payutto 2002 “Threats to Buddhism in Thailand. Bangkok Buddhadhamma Foundation, quoted in “A Study of the dialogue between Christianity and Theravada Buddhism in Thailand” Ph.D. dissertation by Bantoon Boon-It, 2007. Instead of using Buddhism for “Christianity”, let Buddhists follow Christ as Buddhists. The how and why have not been explored to any depth beyond Buddhadasa.

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Just wondering, does the Guest Editor have a pen name?
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