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|
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.