This is an article from the November-December 2014 issue: The Fingerprints of God in Buddhism

The New Buddhists

How Buddhists Can Follow Christ

The New Buddhists

The Word Christian: Biblical background

It is inevitable. As soon as a person has converted and believes in Jesus Christ, he or she will be labeled a Christian. This person has suddenly embraced Christianity. Yet we see the word Christian appears only a few times in the New Testament. It was an insult from non-believers. Within the community of faith the believers referred to themselves as saints1 or children of God.2 Only later did they refer to themselves and other followers as Christians. When the term was first adopted by believers they interpreted the meaning to be those belonging to Jesus Christ but when people from other languages and cultures started adopting this term the meaning continued to change.

The Word Christian: Multiple Meanings in Thailand

When the Roman Catholics arrived in what is now Thailand, they were called Khittang. Later, Protestants were called Khris-tee-yen, understood to be different from Khittang. Both terms referred to what the foreigners called Christian.  Regardless of the term applied, Khris-tee-yen or Khittang, if they follow only the outward forms, they are merely following cultural expressions of the Western church. For example, someone who attends church each Sunday and doesn’t depend upon the grace of God isn’t really a child of God.

Khris-tee-yen (Christian): Negative Meanings in Thailand

In Thailand today, particularly in the northeastern region, Khris-tee-yen brings the following meanings to the hearts and minds of Thai people:

  1. A person who follows a foreign religion
  2. A person who works for foreigners
  3. A person who has sold out his or her nationality to foreigners (Thai people like to say, “Our religion is fine. Why do you need to follow the ways of foreigners?” When we follow another religion it is felt that we have sold out our nationality to others.)
  4. A person who has leprosy (The first Thai people who came to believe in Jesus were lepers. Protestant missionaries in those days had projects to help lepers, who then responded to Jesus and entered into Christianity.)
  5. A person who has descended from evil spirits (They were expelled from their villages and established new villages later to become Christians.)
  6. A person who did not get a proper funeral attended by Buddhist monk (To a Buddhist this means there was no honor given to the deceased and that they would not be able to go to heaven.3 This perception about the death of christians prevents many Buddhists from becoming Christians.)

Removing Cultural Barriers

Because the word Khris-tee-yen is a barrier that keeps many Thai people from believing in God, some believers in Isaan (Eastern Thailand) no longer use the term. They remove cultural barriers by using one of two alternatives: Luk Phra Chao (child of God) and Puttasasanikachon mai (New Buddhist). 

1. Luk Phra Chao (child of God)

We have a model of the term Luk Phra Chao (child of God) in the actions of God himself when he allowed his Son Jesus to be incarnated as human flesh in the Jewish culture. He did not bring a new religion as a set of new external forms from outside.4 Instead, God brought the Word (Logos, see John 1:1) into the world born as a Jew, using the cultural forms and rituals of the Jews that were in accordance with scripture. The cultural forms and rituals the Jewish religious leaders (Pharisees) and their ancestors created that were not in accordance with the Word of God Jesus objected to completely and denied the use. This can be a model for keeping what is in accordance with the word of God within Buddhism.

Following God’s approach, when the apostle Paul began his mission to the Gentiles he did not bring the culture of the Jews with him in his message to the Gentiles.5 He did not force Gentiles to be circumcised. The ritual of circumcision had nothing to do with salvation from sin and therefore was not required of the Gentiles.  Thai people believe they are born as followers of the Buddhist religion. They are Buddhists, as were their ancestors, a view that mirrors the way Jews saw themselves as Jewish along with their ancestors.

However, only a few Thai people truly follow the heart of Buddha’s teachings. Buddhists in Thailand actually follow an amalgamation of beliefs, including animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, which blend together into one set of beliefs. None of the three are denied. When Christianity enters into society, Thais attempt to add it to the other three. Rev. Dr. Nantachai Mejudhon has illustrated it like this:

But Christianity, with its roots in Western culture and rituals, cannot be added on top of other Thai beliefs because Thais revere their own traditions and see it as a foreign religion. They believe their own religion is fine. To change is to insult one’s ancestors and society.

2. Puttasasanikachon mai (a New Buddhist)

The way Thai people can be freed from their sins through Jesus — without building barriers — depends on making a change in the way evangelism is done. Instead of presenting the externals of Christianity (Western church forms), the presenter should follow what is suggested in scripture and allow the Word (Logos) to be the main focus. The message of the gospel must be reborn or re-packaged in the best forms from Thai culture that are in accordance with the gospel. Thai people will believe in Jesus without a need to change religions or without believing in Christianity (the external forms). They can still be Thai Buddhists as before, and follow the traditions of their people that are in accordance with the gospel. Thai people who follow Jesus in this way can be called New Buddhists, not Khris-tee-yen.

There are two reasons for using the term New Buddhist:

1. Buddhism is incomplete:

  • Those who are followers of Buddhism have not received salvation from their sins.
  • Buddhism teaches that we must depend upon ourselves for everything and that life is suffering.
  • The only way to be released from suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path.6

2. Buddhists know they cannot keep the teachings of Buddha.

They attempt to do it, understanding that attempting a little is better than doing nothing. My mother once said, “The monks told me that if I did as little good as an elephant wiggling his ear or a snake flashing his tongue, I will go to heaven.” Very few Buddhists would be willing to say that they have done enough to reach that stage of enlightenment known as nibbana.7

The certainty of attaining nibbana is missing in Buddhism, but for a New Buddhist Jesus brought nibbana to them.

Christ in the Heart of Buddhists

When we understand this issue we can bring the heart message of the gospel to Buddhists. The Bible teaches that all have sinned and Buddhism teaches that all life is suffering. Both have a common origin, the desire for possession (in Genesis 3 the possession of the knowledge of good and evil).

A Thai proverb warns that “What is mine is mine, the source of suffering.” This means that the desire for possession is where suffering comes from. It is important to release all desires for possession, which will allow a person to be released from suffering. The problem with people is that in their own power they are unable to disconnect. The root of sin is to cling to everything mine. The Bible does not teach that just doing wrong is sin but that doing wrong is the result of the sinful nature. Buddhists are not willing to accept that we are born with a sinful nature. However, if we give reasons and examples, we can show that humans are sinful from birth. There is an in-born tendency towards sin because people are inherently self-centric and desire to be great. This is why humans are the enemy of God and ultimately encounter death. Death, therefore, is suffering, as in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha.

Release from Suffering and Sin: Savior Jesus

Buddhism teaches that through our own efforts we must follow and obey the teachings. Within Buddhism there is no Messiah figure. The Buddha taught that he brought the word of enlightenment to others because he himself experienced enlightenment. Whoever desired to be released from sin/suffering must follow his teachings personally. Unlike the Messiah, the Buddha cannot assist anyone in the process.

The problem is, no person has the individual potential to do enough to escape death and suffering. Therefore, humans must rely on God to assist us since we are unable to do it ourselves. Jesus died and paid the debt of sin and suffering to God because “…the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 6:23, NIV) Jesus was victorious over death in the place of all humans. Anyone who believes in this will be released from sin and suffering. There is no need to change the external forms or religions. This completes what is unfulfilled in Buddhism. These believers are still Thai people according to rituals and customs as they were before.

Teachings of the Buddha that are incomplete must be replaced with Scripture. For example: the teaching of the dependence upon self in order to reach nibbana will be replaced with the scriptural teaching that says that humans are not able to depend upon themselves; humans are sinful and therefore human life is suffering. Effort for doing good is insufficient for nibbana. To use Christian terms, the good deeds of humans are insufficient to reach God. Therefore it is necessary to find a new way. The new way to reach nibbana or God himself is Jesus Christ. He is the way, the truth, and the life.

Christ, Not a Cultural Form, Saves Thai Believers

Therefore, those who believe in Jesus in Eastern societies, particularly Thai society, do not need to change the external forms of their religion or replace them with Western external religious forms. Christianity in and of itself cannot save. Jesus is the only one who can do this. He is the way. He can be in any cultural form or expression because all cultural forms come from the Creator.

The Good News Reborn in Eastern Expression

For Eastern people, to understand and accept the true heart of the gospel without any barriers, we must allow the good news, or the thamma,8 to be reborn in the forms and cultural expressions of Eastern people. In the Thai Buddhist context, we can easily explain the meaning of the release from sin and suffering using the teachings of Buddha himself. This is another reason why these followers of Christ can be called New Buddhists.

I have never told someone who did not know beforehand that I was a Christian or that I followed Christianity. Instead, I have told people that I am a New Buddhist. I do this because if I were to say to people that I am a Christian, people would have no further interest in pursuing a friendship with me or spending time with me. Opportunities to share what it means to be released from the result of sin and suffering would no longer be available. However, if I say that I am a New Buddhist people ask, “How does this differ from the old Buddhism?” I then have an opportunity to explain what the difference is between the old and the New Buddhism. In the old Buddhism I had to depend completely upon myself. New Buddhism means complete dependence upon God and his grace as expressed through his Son Jesus Christ. If we depend upon the grace of God, we will receive salvation from our sins. We will be released from our suffering to reach nibbana which is equivalent to being with God in Christian terms.

Therefore, the person who is a New Buddhist is a person who knows that the source of life is God Himself and that she will see God in the end, free from suffering. Aside from this, the person is awakened and conscious of what is happening to him. The person being awakened refers to one who does not fool himself with any animistic practices. Blind belief or belief without any foundation of reason is an animistic form of belief which was also rejected by Buddha himself.9

The term Enlightened One means the one who is pleased to gain this knowledge, not one who receives it as a burden. The person is happy, joyful, even if life is full of difficulties. There is still a happiness from inside because of the knowledge that the person is no longer in debt to their sin. He is released from suffering. When this life is over that individual knows that he will go and be with God (nibbana).

  1. See Acts 9:13, KJV and Rev.19:8, KJV as examples. The term saint in the Thai Bible refers to the followers of the truth and referred to all believers. It was not limited only to those of special merit as in the definition from the Roman Catholic Church.

  2. The phrase children of God appears 13 times from Matt. 5:9, NIV to I John 5:19, NIV.

  3. Many Buddhists believe in many heavens and even hells.

  4. John 1:14-18, NIV

  5. Acts 15:1-21, NIV


  7. nibbana is a Pali term used by Buddhists (nirvana is the Sanskrit equivalent used in Hindu tradition, the meanings are not the same but have similarities). In a nutshell, nibbana is the goal of Buddhism, a cessation of suffering and death. It is not a place or a thing, neither is it nothingness. It is attained through enlightenment. Literally it means roughly  “blowing out”.

  8. thamma is the truth taught by Buddha. In its meaning thamma comes very close to Logos. Because thamma is understood in a sense of ultimate truth, truth that leads to nibbana, some use it in the sense of the word of truth. The apostle John used Logos (John 1:1, NIV) in a way it was never used before, basically meaning Christ, in the same manner some are using thamma. As much as Jesus is the good news, thamma is the good news.

  9. Kalama Sutta AN 3.65,


One can look to Korea and see innumerable Christians who were once Buddists. Perhaps some missionaries from Korea could try sharing the gospel in Thailand. But either way, we cannot all go around saying we are New Moslems, New Hindus and New Atheists. By so doing we would make the simplicity of the gospel into a very complex set of disparities. Cultural rejection is an inevitable result of following Christ all over the world.

In the context of this article, the following link might be helpful:
Is cultural rejection really an inevitable result or is the persecution we might experience more the result of people spiritually rejecting Christ and what he stands for?
Making the simplicity of the Good News simple in a cross-cultural setting can also be quite difficult, and often complex. If it would be simple, the task would have been finished already.
If calling oneself a certain label will make it possible to actually get a hearing then this might be better than calling oneself something that is totally misunderstood, like “Christian”.

Quite a number of Korean missionaries have worked and are working in Thailand. But what you seem to be suggesting, Dennis, doesn’t really work. I think it’s because the Western/Christian way of doing church suits Koreans culture. In any case, rejection is never desirable for God’s purposes—let that rejection come from spiritual forces, and not because of being offensive or misunderstood.

Using buddhist terminology to impose christian meaning into it is spiritual hijack, thus intellectually and morally dishonest.
Buddhist is one who follows Buddha and Christian is one who follow Christ. They are not the same.  Calling a regenerated believer in Christ a new Buddhist is an oxymoron. It’s not Buddhist or new. Call it child of God, follower of Christ, saint, friend of god or whatever but new Buddhist conveys that one is a follower of Buddha not Christ. This is deceptive.  This kind of so called contextualization can lead to compromising christ’s distinctives and eventually to syncretism.  Although religion can influence culture, culture is not necessarily religion. This being said there are other culturally relevant ways to present the gospel or incarnate christ’s teaching that’s unique to thai people without catering to Buddhist religion.

To outsiders, Buddhism is a religion, but to Thai people, it’s a way of life, part of mindset and culture. We need to explain the gospel in a way that makes sense, we need to cater to Thai Buddhists, that’s hard enough as it is, and if we make things easy on ourselves by just explaining things on our terms, we might as well get lots of foreign evangelists come in, get them translated, and see what happened. The thing is, that approach has been tried, with very limited fruit. We need an indigenised Body of Christ, without our hangups and blind spots—but it’s hard for us to know our blind spots… Thus we need the input of Thai followers of Jesus that haven’t been insensitized to their own cultural background. Otherwise we keep estranging family and friends whenever a Thai person becomes a Christian.

Those American Christians who have never read Eternity In Their Hearts by Don Richardson need to read it. American missionaries/Christians need to see the global work God does and has been doing. It’s NOT the European or American way, so those of you that don’t understand working within the cultures to get the gospel if Jesus Christ out, please don’t “speak off the top of your head” the American way without reading this book. Hudson Taylor was criticized for that very reason.  Christianity is not the American church way.

Btw, I’m sorry I forgot to mention this. Chris and Peter, you are right on. Thank you for posting.

As a seeker of truth I have over the years found that I the Truth should always be our focus. I find many similarities between the LORD’s sayings and the Buddha’s, but i do not take them as the same or equals. Buddha represents what we all aspire to, enlightenment, thus we really can be Buddhas. Christ on the other hand is the giver of the Enlightenment. Christ is the image of the Unseen God, to which Buddha only seemed to reject. The gods or God he spoke of is not the Unseen and Unknowable. The Unseen One is not what most people IMAGINE Him to be or be like. God reveals Himself as Truth Eternal, the Spirit of God is the Spirit of Truth, and Christ said “I AM the Truth” and so the Buddha said “Truth is the only Savior.”

I am glad to see similar minded individuals. I have written my spiritual insights down in a book soon to be publicly available. I wish I could say more, but for now and forever…

Seek the Truth!

Thank you Beth, for pointing out Don Richardson’s book. It has not been well applied to the big socio-religious groups unfortunately. But the principles do apply. The difference is in how we deal with it. When a movement breaks out among tribals, the group is half reached before the news has reached critics, and critics don’t appear because no one knows anything about that trial group. If a movement happens among Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists and these people don’t slap a “Christian” label on themselves immediately, people who have no clue about cross-cultural work are getting nervous because of doctrinal issues, then start threatening to disengage. This is so sad. If medical progress had been hindered by unknowledgeable people who are far removed by ground realities, penicillin would not have been discovered yet.
Another issue is that tribals in general do not have such sophisticated philosophical thoughts as Muslim, Hindus and Buddhists. The thoughts of Buddha and others before him are way deeper than we can imagine, but we have tried to simplify cross-cultural work since over one hundred years and thus disregarded these outstanding cultures. My hope is we don’t have to deal with the same problems in another one hundred years but start listening more to people like Banpote Wetchgama and get into a steep learning curve.

Fortune and Chris, thank you for your insightful posts.  God’s Word tells us to be an example of the believer in word, in action, in love, in purity, so God’s Word that we speak should be the offense, not us (I Pet. 2:7,8) or our words or phrases or titles.

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