Thursday, May 24, 2012

Happy Birthday Buddha. Part Four.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to accompany a couple of fellow grad students to a festival being held at a local Buddhist temple; this couple is now involved in church planting in the Tohoku region of Japan. After enjoying some tasty food and watching a few cultural dance and music performances we went inside the temple to hear a talk on Buddhism from the resident priest.

We were surprised by the amount of contextualization that was being done in order to reach white middle-class post-Christian Americans with the Buddhist message. There were pews, a piano, a podium, song books--one of the temple members even referred to it as her 'church.' When the priest spoke, he mostly discussed community, the need for tradition and spirituality. He was clearly experienced at sharing his beliefs with Americans of different backgrounds. Several members of the temple asked a few soft-ball questions that he answered quite easily. He emphasized that though the temple had originally been founded to minister to one particular ethnic group, people from diverse backgrounds frequently attended and were involved in the community life of the temple.

I left feeling convicted of my slothfulness, shallow understanding of Buddhism and neglect of engaging Buddhists with the hope of the Gospel. One of my companions even commented that they were doing a better job at contextualizing their message for Americans than we were at communicating the Gospel to that particular ethnic group.

In order to communicate the Gospel clearly to Buddhists in East Asia we must be diligent to understand and engage with the best Buddhist scholarship and practices. In his chapel message at Dallas Theological Seminary entitled, "Globilization: Buddhism in a Globalizing World," Dr. Harold Netland of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School strongly emphasized the need to understand the current beliefs of Buddhists rather than only studying their historic creeds and doctrines. This lecture is definitely worth watching--even though many of the students in his audience appear to be dozing off and don't seem to appreciate what a treasure of insight they are being offered. (However, his discussion of the impact of DT Suzuki on the West could have been executed better).

Sadhu Sundar Singh
I am very fond of the writings and life story of the Indian evangelist Sadhu Sundar Singh. A convert to Christianity from a Sikh/Hindu background, he endeavored to thoroughly understand the religions of South Asia, including Buddhism and Islam. In my spare time I have been reading some of Singh's book entitled, 'With and Without Christ.' (1928) This book is replete with missiological insights. He details his numerous encounters with non-Christians from different faiths, nominal Christians and those transformed by the Gospel inside and outside of the visible church.

Singh made frequent trips by foot into Tibet from northern India to share the Gospel with Buddhist religious leaders. On these trips he frequently risked his life facing severe persecution. It was on one of these trips that he passed into eternity. This book has a detailed encounter between Singh and a Tibetan Buddhist Monk which I encourage you to read:
"One day in Tibet, when I was speaking about Christian hermits, a man remarked that in their country they too had many hermits, and in the mountain opposite was a cave in which an ancient lama had, for several years, been absorbed in prayer and meditation. He had had the entrance to his cave walled up and had never left the cave. The people near-by used to take up tea and parched barley flour once every day, and put it in to him through a hole in the wall. Owing to his having lived in the dark so long he had become blind, and he intended to spend the remainder of his days in the cave. 
I took with me the man who had told me this and went up to see the hermit. We had to wait for some time, as he was engaged in prayer and meditation; but afterwards, at our request, he came and sat near the hole in the wall. It was impossible to see him in the dark and narrow cell, and he could not see us, but we could converse easily. At first he asked me where I came from and why I had come. Then I asked about his experience. 'What', I asked, 'have you gained from this solitary meditation? As Buddha has not taught anything about God, to whom do you pray?' He said: 'I look on Buddha as God and pray to him. My motive in concealing myself in this cave is not that I may obtain anything, but that I may be freed from all desires of obtaining anything. I am seeking to obtain Nirvana--the extinction of all feelings and desires, whether of pain or peace; but I am still in bodily and spiritual darkness, and I know not what the end will be. Yet I know that anything I lack now will be made up to me in some other re-birth.'  
I replied: 'The desires and feelings you have are given you by God not that they may be crushed and extinguished, but that they may be satisfied in Him. Had it been the Creator's will that they should have been destroyed, He would not have created them. Now to kill these desires is not salvation but suicide, because they are inseparably connected with our lives. Even if you try to stamp out desire it is uesless, for to desire to kill a desire, is itself a desire. Then how can freedom or salvation be thus obtained, for the desire is created from desire? The best way is not to stifle this craving, but to satisfy it in Him who has created it, and in this we find true salvation.' 'Well', he said, 'it will be seen what will be', and with these words he ended our interview." (The Christian Witness of Sadhu Sundar Singh, Christian Literature Society Madras India, 1989. pp.353-354)
This intercourse between the Sadhu and the hermit stuck in my mind for two reasons. The first was how much it resonated with the thesis of Rev. John Piper's classic devotional work 'Desiring God,' (free eBook) Man's chief end is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.

Besides the parallel with one of my favorite Christian books I was struck by how well Singh understood the Buddhist faith and his willingness to share the Gospel with one of its most committed adherants--he offered a very contextualized Gospel presentation with consideration to the era when it was given. It is a challenging reminder that communicating the Gospel well begins with understanding those we hope to communicate the message to.

Happy Birthday Buddha. Part Three.

In my last post I attempted to make the case that we need to develop specialized training for Christian missionaries in East Asia working among Buddhists. After writing and publishing my post I read an article by Dr. David J. Hesselgrave for the International Journal of Frontier Missions entitled 'Reaching Japanese Buddhists, Where do we start if we want to do better?' (PDF) which affirmed what I had written, but also made the case much better than I had done (while also taking a shot at the field of studies I pursued as a graduate student).

A pretty challenging quote from the article: "What are the prospects for more specialized training? Currently, missionary education is in flux. In addition to those changes referred to previously there is a trend toward re-naming the discipline itself. Mission studies are now becoming “intercultural studies” in various schools. Valid reasons can be adduced for the change. But if we have learned anything about words it is that they are not just labels, just “sound and smoke,” as some would have us believe. They have their own power. It will prove difficult to re-name the discipline without reforming the offerings. In all likelihood the tendency will be to shortchange biblical/theological/religious studies while strengthening the study of culture and culture-related subjects. If so, intensive study of mission theology (which has been fairly important in the past) will be neglected. And specialized study of the various religions (which seldom has been available in recent years) will still be overlooked." (emphasis mine)

Following this Dr. Hesselgrave makes his case boldly, "The growth and success of programs designed to provide classroom instruction and hands-on experience in reaching various Jewish and Muslim groups should serve to heighten awareness of the need for specialized training. If there is a need for special preparation for missionaries to Jews and Muslims who share so much of our own religious tradition, how much greater the need for enhanced training when targeting those with whom we share little more than a commitment to transcendence?"(emphasis mine)

This article was published nearly two decades ago and I can attest to the prophetic nature of his assessment of missionary education. While I received a great understanding of cultural dynamics in my grad studies, there was little treatment of the development of the theology of missions nor specialized study of various religions.

While in grad school I was fortunate to take a class offered to the community through the Billy Graham Center titled 'Encountering the World of Islam,' which greatly improved my understanding of missions to Muslims. I also spent extensive time in the South Asian community in Chicago and spent nearly two years in a church planting internship among a predominantly Hindu people-group. I was fortunate to have a team-leader who is one of the leaders in specialized Hindu mission strategy and I learned a lot from him.

Now that I am in Korea, and hoping to go to Japan in the future, I feel that I have not invested my time and my studies as wisely as I could have. I still do not know about Buddhism nearly as well as I should considering I plan on investing my life in this field.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Happy Birthday Buddha. Part Two.

A few years ago I met with a few friends to watch the Japanese movie ‘Tokyo Sonata.’ One of these friends was a half-Japanese graduate student at a Christian college, another a missionary candidate to Japan, and the third a Japanese gentleman who had been attending a church faithfully for many years. After finishing we went out to dinner and had a lively discussion about the movie.

We considered many of the problematic issues facing contemporary Japanese society—one being broken families, the theme of the film. We all agreed that the solution was the Gospel—or so it seemed. I shared with them my desire to go to Japan as a missionary and preach the Gospel. Then I received a question I wasn’t prepared for.

The Japanese gentleman asked me, “You will only share the Gospel with people who don’t have a religion, right?” I asked him what he meant and he replied, “Well, I think we should only share the Gospel with people who don’t have a religion. Buddhist people already have something they believe in, and if that makes them happy, we shouldn’t tell them about Jesus.” I was shocked, especially since this man was a faithful member of the church I was serving in at the time. Reading about religious pluralism in a textbook and then encountering it first-hand are two very different experiences. Thankfully a swift and knowing glance from the half-Japanese graduate student told me not to try to remedy the situation immediately—it is good to have a cultural insider around to keep one from putting their foot in their mouth. The exclusivity of Jesus Christ is a sticky issue in many Japanese churches.

Recently, I finished reading John Piper’s book ‘Jesus the Only Way to God.’ I recommend that every Christian take the opportunity to avail themselves of this little book. I was encouraged once again to consider the call to witness to all nations and call them to put their faith in Jesus Christ. In today’s reflections we will consider the scope of the task of evangelism among Buddhists in East Asia.

Buddha's Birth in central Chuncheon
One common misconception about Buddhism found among many Christians is that it is benign and losing its influence globally. I believe this misunderstanding stems from the success of Christian missions in traditionally Buddhist countries like China and Korea. While the phenomenal growth of Christianity in these nations is a cause for celebration, the Buddhist religion has likewise seen impressive growth over the past century. Buddhism like Christianity is a missionary religion. In the past century Buddhism has seen a revival in traditionally Buddhist nations and has found new adherents globally through its missionary efforts.

For the sake of my reflections I am going to narrow my focus to the Buddhism most widely found East Asia. A century ago saying East Asian was Buddhist would have been comparable to saying that Modern Europe is Christian. It could be said that it was even post-Buddhist. While Buddhism strongly influenced the history and culture of East Asia, and many people might have called themselves Buddhist, Buddhism as a whole suffered from malaise and was weakened by the pluralism prominent in East Asian philosophy and culture. Buddhism in China competed and was often intermingled with traditional Chinese religions, Taoism and Confucianism—very few purely Buddhist believer might be found outside of a Buddhist monastery. Korea during the Joseon period was strongly Confucian and anti-Buddhist; Buddhism being a minority religion throughout Korea’s modern history. The crackdown on Buddhism in Japan that occurred during the early Tokugawa period severely weakened Buddhism there for hundreds of years. Japanese religious pluralism and emphasis on State Shinto in the early 20th century likewise weakened its influence in the land of the Rising Sun.

A quick look at Operation World for either China or South Korea will show that over the past century Buddhism has grown significantly. Conversions from Buddhism to Christianity while not uncommon have often been from nominal adherents. All too often Buddhism and Christianity have been competing for those without a strong religious affiliation. This accounts for the growth of Christianity and Buddhism in modern China and Korea, where the path into the modern period left a religious vacuum. Confucianism was primary system of belief in the Joseon period and many who were devoted to Neo-Confucianism were antagonistic against Buddhism. When the Joseon period ended Buddhism started to made significant gains among in Korea and continues to grow at a rate similar to Christianity in Korea. China prior to Communist rule was nominally Buddhist. With the founding of the People’s Republic of China both Buddhists and Christians were heavily persecuted. Buddhists have continued to be persecuted in modern China. One significant Buddhist revival movement in Mainland China, Falun Gong, has grown in spite of continuous pressure by the Chinese government.

In addition to the significant quantitative gains that Buddhism has made in East Asia over the past century, they have also made qualitative gains as well.  David J. Hesselgrave, emeritus professor mission at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and former missionary to Japan wrote his doctoral thesis on the development of Soka Gakkai in Japan (Tom Cruise is to Scientology as Orlando Bloom is to…?). This was reworked and included in a book that he edited entitled ‘Dynamic Religious Movements’ of which I was fortunate to own a copy before my move to Korea. In the chapter on the Soka Gakkai, Dr. Hesselgrave makes a compelling case for the qualitative growth of Buddhism in Japan. Not only did Buddhism grow in numbers, but also in depth of commitment and knowledge of their faith. Because of the polemical nature of Soka Gakkai prosylization it compelled members to understand their faith more deeply and to shun pluralism. The result of this Buddhist ‘fundamentalism’ in Japan has been that Japanese Buddhism on a whole has become qualitatively stronger.  This is true of Buddhism throughout East Asia. So far, I attempted to avoid the word fundamentalism as much as possible, but in this case it does fit the original textbook definition: a commitment to a core set of beliefs. If we take this as the definition of fundamentalism, then it is accurate to say that Buddhist fundamentalism has been the cause and result of much of the growth of Buddhism in East Asia in the past century.

What does all of this mean? Buddhism is growing. It is growing in numbers of adherents and in the depth of their commitment. Buddhist religious orders are increasingly sending missionaries to the West and other parts of the world where they are finding itching ears. With regard to the future of Christian missions in East Asia, much of the low hanging fruit has already been picked, and there is competition for whatever is left. This means that the missionary task in East Asia is no longer one of reaching nominal or religiously uncommitted people, but is increasingly going to need to be focused on reaching out to those who already have a strong religious commitment. The twenty-first century task of sharing the Gospel with Buddhists in East Asia is comparable to that of missionary efforts among Muslims and Hindus in other parts of the world. As a church, we need to take seriously the work that is before us and train up men and women to share the Gospel boldly among those who are committed Buddhists.

A missionary preparing for service in East Asia should be trained to share their faith with serious Buddhists. We need to equip local churches to articulately and winsomely witness to their Buddhist neighbors. We need to be aware of the missionary nature of Buddhism within the Western church and equip our congregations to recognize and understand Buddhism in order to reach those who these missionaries are hoping to reach. Recently their has been a renaissance in discussion of how best to witness to Muslims and Hindus—likewise we need  to begin such a conversation on how to contextualize the Gospel for those in East Asia.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Happy Birthday Buddha. Part One.

Buddha's Birthday is a national holiday celebrated in Korea on May 28th this year--and decorations have been up around Chuncheon for the better part of the past month. As with major Christian holidays in the States such as Easter and Christmas, tis the season for revelations of scandal involving religious leaders. But I am against using such cheap polemical low shots to advance the cause of the Gospel. Instead I wanted to take a moment to consider what is being done, if anything, to intentionally witness to and contextualize the Gospel for those from a Buddhist background.

Recently the Gospel Coalition has been running a series of posts related to contextualization for Muslims.  But several other things have had me thinking about contextualization for Buddhists. Since coming to Korea I have had a few interesting encounters in which I have been mistake for a Buddhist monk/devotee based on my haircut (or lack thereof). Most recently it was on the train.

After striking up a conversation with an older man he asked me what I was doing in Korea. I told him I worked with a church. Confused the man asked me if it was a Buddhist 'church.' I told him that I was a Christian. He was surprised and then told me that he too was a Christian. He quickly commented that Buddhists were 'bad people.' I replied that we are all 'bad people,' Christians and Buddhists alike, but that God loved us so much that He sent His own Son Jesus. I told him that we need to love Buddhists too. He changed the topic and I had to get off at the next stop; but the encounter kept me thinking, who was taking the Gospel to the Buddhist in Korea?

For the next week I will post a daily blog with reflections on this question.