The comment of my Cambodian friend startled me: “When I was fleeing during the war, I ran into a Catholic church. There I saw the figure of Jesus twisted on the cross, and I was shocked to learn that Christians worship this man. How could they even respect someone who obviously had such terrible karma?”
My friend looked at Jesus through Buddhist eyes, assuming His suffering was from something bad He’d done in a previous life. This one man’s confusion points us to the millions of Buddhists who either don’t know anything about Jesus or have serious misunderstandings about Him.
Tens of thousands of men shave their heads, don orange robes, and devote themselves as monks to the Buddhist path of good deeds and meditation. They hope, someday, to escape the cycle of suffering and rebirth. Millions of laypeople join in varying degrees. In many Asian countries Buddhism is reviving and growing, and in the West, people are turning to Buddhism in unprecedented numbers.
Would you like to know how to share Jesus in a way that Buddhists can understand, appreciate, and come to believe in Him?
Barriers to Buddhists believing
First, it’s important to know what makes it difficult for Buddhists to believe in Jesus. One major barrier is the belief system of Buddhists. While Buddhism has many good moral teachings, at its core lies the belief that one can be saved by one’s own works. The teaching of an eternal, supreme, personal, and loving God, such as the Bible presents, is left out. Concepts about life, death, and personhood defined in terms of karma, rebirth, and nirvana add to the confusion that makes it difficult to understand who Jesus is and why He is needed.
Another barrier includes the reality that many Buddhists live in countries where all their family members and neighbors are Buddhists. Becoming a Christian can feel like a betrayal of family and country.
Often Buddhists are prejudiced against Christianity. They see it as a religion that is less moral and less spiritual than Buddhism, and sometimes this happens because of Christians nearby whose lives do not represent Jesus. Other times it is because Buddhists associate Christianity with the West, including its politics and seemingly selfish materialism or even the immorality and violence of the movies produced there.
Christian witnesses among Buddhists must often face the challenge of freezing, rugged mountains, congested cities, difficult languages, or repressive governments. Christians have not taken this mission field seriously enough and so the sin and laziness of God’s people is another barrier to the gospel reaching Buddhists.
Beyond all of this, evil spirits fight against the knowledge of God, and the natural human heart is simply not inclined towards Jesus.
So how can we get past these barriers and better present Jesus Christ to Buddhists? Jesus clearly answers our question in His promise of the Holy Spirit as the means for taking His gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). This is not a simplistic statement that ends in a quick prayer for the Holy Spirit and a return to searching elsewhere for some special method for reaching Buddhists. We must search the Bible to know the Holy Spirit’s ways and apply them to Buddhist people. Here are some principles I found helpful in reaching Buddhists for Jesus.
The power of the Holy Spirit and prayer
The Bible clearly teaches that a miracle of the Holy Spirit is necessary for anyone (including a Buddhist) to come to trust in Jesus as the only eternal and divine Savior (Matt.16:17; 1 Cor. 12:3; 2:11–16).
If we truly believe that God alone can reveal Jesus to Buddhists, then prayer will be our greatest priority and method. By prayer and dependence on His Father, Jesus did His works of ministry, and after the disciples prayed, the Holy Spirit came and thousands were led to Christ.
To be truly effective in presenting Christ to Buddhists, we must pray for a miracle of revelation by the Holy Spirit in every attempt to witness. Prayers of dependence will permeate every other method.
The Christlike character of the messenger
The admirable character of Jesus attracted many people. Kindness and generosity, justice and mercy, peacefulness and devotion were combined in a very attractive balance. When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples, they had “favor with all the people,” “gladness and simplicity of heart,” and shared whatever they had with those in need (Acts 2:44–47, NKJV). Buddhists will be drawn to Jesus as His character is seen in true Christians.
Part of the attraction for Buddhists is that many Christian qualities match the values their religion teaches. Compassion and moral purity are significant aspects in the character of Buddha. The sacrifice of position and power is a major part of Buddha’s story and demonstrated by monks who give up marriage, personal possessions, and entertainment to live a simple life seeking enlightenment. Many lay Buddhists give generously of their time and money to various causes. Millions of Buddha images portray Buddha in various positions of complete calm. Serious Buddhists discipline themselves, not to be controlled by any desire or situation.
All of these qualities can be vividly seen in Jesus and will be attractive to the searching Buddhist. This is especially true when the ones telling the Jesus story live that story and exemplify His life. Jesus, in particular, highlighted loving unity as a quality by which the world would know He was the special One sent by God (John 17:21, 23).
This was further verified by a study of many young people who attended the Christian school Chiang Mai Adventist Academy in Thailand. Buddhist students who became Christians reported that they came to believe in Jesus primarily through contact with various caring Christians, especially their teachers. Christlike character was a significant reason for their attraction to Jesus.1 We should seek to demonstrate Christ’s love in our attitudes, words, and compassionate deeds.
Victory through Jesus
Many Buddhists seek for spiritual power. Shrines and idols, including Buddha images, Hindu gods, and local spirits can be often seen in the homes and towns of Buddhists. Encounters with ghosts and spirits are commonly reported. These beliefs and experiences of the supernatural mean that many Buddhists are open to a similar possibility in relation to Jesus through His miracles.
One of the first ways Jesus revealed Himself was through miracles of healing or deliverance from evil spirits. A survey of the book of Acts also reveals that the Holy Spirit often moved the gospel forward through such miracles.
We can pray for and expect miracles from God in order to reach Buddhists today. Christians in many places are seeing Buddhists converted as they pray for their problems and teach them to ask God for help. One study of 259 people, primarily from Buddhist backgrounds, showed that “the majority, 48.4 percent, of Buddhists who have become Christians indicated that their personal experience with God was the main factor for their decision to accept Christ as their Savior.”2
God gives miracles in many forms. He protects, heals, sends dreams, gives victory over spirits and temptations, provides jobs, and solves family conflicts. Every time I offer to pray for Buddhists, I find they eagerly agree. Buddhists are searching for power and we have the privilege of helping them see Jesus through stories and present-day experiences of His miracles.
As witnesses for Jesus, we have much to say. We know Jesus as a Teacher, Healer, Exorcist, a compassionate Friend, radical Reformer, Prophet, the Savior from sin, a mediating Priest, Creator, and the eternal God. We cannot say all this at once and so we must choose what to reveal and when. One of the Holy Spirit’s methods is to present truth progressively, starting with what the audience can appreciate and moving towards the more difficult to understand or believe. Jesus stated it like this, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:12, 13, NKJV).
Unveiling truth progressively
The Gospel of Mark demonstrates this when it introduces Jesus, bit by bit, showing Him preaching, casting out evil spirits, and healing the sick (Mark 1). Jesus does not announce His identity as the Son of God and the Christ. In fact, when evil spirits say that He is the Son of God, He makes them be quiet (3:11, 12). When the disciples declare Jesus as the Christ, He warns them not to tell anyone (8:29, 30).
By the end of Mark, Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and Savior is clear. The Father Himself declares that Jesus is His beloved Son (9:7). The centurion could see the same even when Jesus was on the cross (15:39). According to Mark’s presentation, Jesus revealed His identity progressively.
Below is a progression I have found to be logical to some Buddhists I have worked with:
1. Jesus as Miracle-Worker
2. Jesus as Teacher of Morality
3. Jesus and His Admirable Character
4. Jesus as Teacher Regarding the Living God
5. Jesus as Creator
6. Jesus as Judge
7. Jesus as Savior
Buddhists can quite easily understand and appreciate many of Jesus’ character qualities, actions, and teachings that are familiar to their values (steps 1–3). Some examples include His purity and compassion in dealing with the woman caught in adultery, His calm in the face of persecution and storms, and His self-sacrifice at the cross.
Parables of Jesus that have some similar emphases to Buddhism are the seed and the four soils, the wheat and the tares, hidden treasure, the pearl of great price (all in Matt. 13), the rich fool (Luke 12:13–21), and the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25).
Focusing on these areas first makes it easier for Buddhists to believe the truths about His divinity and saving power (steps 4–7).
While emphasizing what is familiar to them, we must steadily help them move to a fuller understanding of Christ’s completely unique ability to save. Jesus was not another Buddha seeking enlightenment in His incarnation and that must become clear. This will happen as we share the fuller story and as we pray for the Holy Spirit to open minds and hearts to understanding and belief.
Proclaiming the Word with power and love
Some Buddhists simply view Jesus as a good man. Other Buddhists see Him as another Buddha, or a Bodhisattva—an enlightened being who has power to help people. In general, Buddhists are likely to be very inclusive in their beliefs. They may put up a statue or picture of Jesus along with their Buddha image and a Hindu god. They are likely to be surprised or even offended to hear a Christian declare Jesus to be the only way for salvation.
When we meet a Buddhist who has an incorrect view of Jesus we must care enough to tell him the truth. We know that a time of final deception regarding Jesus will come. Satan himself will appear as Christ and deceive many. Like Peter, Paul, and others, we must be ready to defend the truth about Jesus based on the solid evidence of prophecies, history, and transformed lives (Acts 2:14–39; 3:12–26; 4:8–12, 19, 20; 5:29–32).
At the same time, we must recognize that good apologetics and explanations are not sufficient to generate faith. For this, God has promised the Holy Spirit to empower the proclamation of the Word (1 Cor. 2:4; Matt.10:19, 20). Our confidence must never be in our logic but in what the Holy Spirit can do. In all our answers to Buddhists, we must have a prayerful reliance on the Holy Spirit.
When the Holy Spirit empowers preaching, the words are spoken not only with boldness, but with deep love.3 Paul said, “Remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears” (Acts 20:31, NKJV).
This means that in answering Buddhists’ questions, we should be in earnest while determinedly avoiding a proud, combative spirit. Most Buddhists are taught to have a calm, peaceful spirit and can easily be turned away by heated speeches. Many dissertations have been written to show the value of approaching Buddhists with a meek spirit.4
True Christian compassion will seek to answer one’s needs rather than just intellectual questions. One of the most effective ways I have found for, confidently yet gently, helping Buddhists believe is by sharing stories of what God has done for me in areas that are relevant to their struggles.5
Lifting Jesus on the cross
Through various means the Holy Spirit draws Buddhists to Christ. Take conversion, for example. This is also the work of the Holy Spirit.
The biblical records show that Jesus’ death and resurrection were seen by the majority only after they knew Him as miraculous Healer, Teacher, and as a compassionate Person. So also, we find it easier to share Jesus as Savior with Buddhists once they’ve come to appreciate His teachings, power, and character. If we will share His life of perfection and communicate clearly who He was before His incarnation, it will be easier for them to understand that Jesus died for the sins of others, not His own bad karma.
However, the story of the Cross itself truly does have a great drawing power for Buddhists (John 12:32). I was visiting a layman in a Buddhist temple in Thailand. He was very humble and had committed himself totally to Buddhism. I wanted very much to share Jesus with him, but my Thai language was too limited. Imagine my surprise, when he, seeing my attempt, began to speak about Jesus on the cross. “Whenever I’m angry at someone,” he said, “I think of Jesus on the cross. As I contemplate the way He did not get angry at the soldiers, but instead forgave them, all my anger melts away.”
We should tell the story of the cross to Buddhists by emphasizing Jesus’ character, connecting it to characteristics they highly value. His compassion can be seen in how He treated the sorrowing women and the dying thief. His self-control and patience can be seen in His silence and peacefulness under the verbal attacks of the religious leaders and the physical torture. His care for His mother while He was in pain will also be significant to those who highly value honoring their parents. His complete sacrifice of self will be especially appealing.
We must also focus on grace and forgiveness. Though this may be intellectually difficult for a Buddhist to accept, real spiritual and emotional need can open the door to understanding. One weekend I met a Buddhist man who had come for the first time to church. He had experienced a stroke and was partly paralyzed. I watched the tears stream down his face as he heard about Jesus’ death and how He could forgive any sin. This man had been involved in terrible crimes, in particular the trafficking of children into prostitution. He felt that his paralysis was because of his sins and eagerly grasped at the hope of forgiveness through Jesus’ mercy. Likewise, many other Buddhists have found hope and eternal life through the presentation of Jesus as our Substitute.
However, many Buddhists think that the idea of the forgiveness of sins is too easy, even immoral. They see many Christians glibly continuing on in a lifestyle of sin while claiming God’s forgiveness. We must share the full gospel that includes repentance and transformation. Baptism is a death of self and a rising to new life (Rom. 6, Gal. 2:20, and 2 Cor. 5:14–21). These deep truths of the Cross will speak to Buddhists, who are seeking to die to selfishness and achieve purity.
In general, the story of Jesus on the cross is an attractive story for Buddhists. We should tell it often, weaving the various parts of the story in ways that will speak to the interests and needs of the Buddhists to whom we are talking. We must invite them to ask God for forgiveness and a new life. Jesus can be known as Savior among them as we rely on the Holy Spirit and move forward to share the wonderful story.
So much beauty exists in the person of Jesus that is extremely special and necessary for Buddhists. There are many connections to Buddhist values through which they can come to appreciate Him, and so much resides in Jesus that Buddhists are searching for.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can earnestly pray, seek to show His character in our lives and churches, then boldly and lovingly tell the truth about our Teacher, Miracle-Worker, God, and Savior. The Holy Spirit will surely reveal Jesus as their Christ, resulting in salvation for many Buddhists.
1 Surachet Insom, “A Comparative Study Between the Teaching and Compassion Model of Jesus With Buddhists in Thailand” (PhD thesis, Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite, Philippines, 2008).
2 Khamsay Phetchareun, “Presenting the Gospel Message in Thailand” (PhD thesis, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI, U.S.A., June 2005), 96.
3 "After the descent of the Holy Spirit, the disciples were so filled with love for Him and for those for whom He died, that hearts were melted by the words they spoke and the prayers they offered. They spoke in the power of the Spirit; and under the influence of that power, thousands were converted.” Ellen G. White, The Acts ofthe Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 22.
4 Nantachai Meajudhon, Meekness: A New Approach to Christian Witness to the Thai People (DMiss Dissertation, Asbury Theological Seminary, 1997); Ubolwan Mejudhon, The Way of Meekness: Being Christian and Thai in the Thai Way (DMiss dissertation, Asbury Theological Seminary, 1997).
5 “Our confession of His faithfulness is Heaven’s chosen agency for revealing Christ to the world. We are to acknowledge His grace as made known through the holy men of old; but that which will be most effectual is the testimony of our own experience.... These precious acknowledgments to the praise of the glory of His grace, when supported by a Christ-like life, have an irresistible power that works for the salvation of souls.” Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 347.