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.

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