Interfaith Interface with Buddhists

Buddhism runs deep in my family’s religious history. My father was born in a Buddhist family, my mother was born in a Buddhist family. In fact, both of my parents’ families’ ancestors were Buddhists for generations. One of my ancestors on my father’s side was Samyongdang, a well-known sixteenth-century Buddhist monk in Korean history. When I was born, my parents were not Christian; they became Christ-followers in the 1970s (and I in 1982). During my childhood in South Korea, I sometimes went on school field trips to various religious sites such as Buddhist temples. Seeing Buddhist monks in gray robes on the streets of Seoul was a common sight.

For the goal of mutual understanding and enrichment, and
also for the sake of evangelism, we need to listen to and
learn from the teachings of Buddhism.

For over a millennium, Korea has been a multi-religious nation, teeming with world religions such as Shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity. Currently, about one-third of the Korean population is Christian and one-third Buddhist. Christians’ interfaith interface with followers of other religions is both a challenge and an opportunity for Christians in Korea. Likewise, in North America, Europe, and other continents, world religions endeavor for their survival and expansion in the twenty-first century. Interfaith interface is one of the most challenging themes in global Christian movements.

As Lesslie Newbigin explains, one reason for Christians’ need to engage in interfaith interaction is to be “obedient to [the missionary] call of Christ.”1 To Michael Barnes, “the motivation for mission” is “responding to the gift of God’s love” by sharing it with others.2 Stephen Neill also echoes the same sentiment:” If we affirm that Christianity is true…we are faced by the painful issue of the intolerance of truth” [by not sharing the gospel with others].3

Attitudes do matter when one engages in inter-religious interaction with people of different faiths. John Stott lists four “marks” of attitude needed in interfaith interface: authenticity, humility, integrity, and sensitivity.4 I strongly concur with Newbigin’s claim that until one has felt in one’s soul the dynamic power and influence of a great religion, one has not heard or understood the message of it.5

Thus, for the goal of mutual understanding and enrichment, and also for the sake of evangelism, we need to take time to listen to and learn from the teachings of Buddhism.

The Buddha’s Life
Buddha was born around 560 B.C. in Kapilavastu, a borderland squeezed between India and Nepal. Buddha is not a proper name, but a title of honor meaning “the enlightened one.” His personal name was Siddhartha Gotama. Siddhartha was a prince of a small Indian kingdom. His mother, Maya, died immediately after giving birth to him. A famous fortune-teller told his father that Siddhartha would either unite all the Indian states or become a humanity-saving saint.

As a ruler, the father rather wanted his son to succeed him. However, after seeing the disabled, the sick, the dead, and a yogi, the prince left the palace, leaving behind his noble status, his wealth, his beautiful wife, and his newborn son, Rahula.

The Buddha painfully experienced that life itself is suffering. He desperately searched for means to stop suffering. He became a wandering ascetic in a forest for six years. One day he realized that extreme asceticism does not liberate one from life’s pains and sorrows, but extreme hunger actually distracted his mind. Thus, he abandoned ascetic practices and advocated that one should avoid extremes in life, for the true way to liberation lies in the middle way—between hedonism and asceticism. Even today, the middle way (moderation) is a key virtue in Buddhism. 

Under a Bodhi tree, the truth-seeker had an enlightenment experience. Many people came to hear the awakened one’s teachings and became his disciples, forming a community (sangha) of faith. According to Buddhist legend, the Buddha went back to his hometown before his death, and his son also became a Buddhist monk. Pensive and down-to-earth, he cherished silence and solitude as his favorite virtues. He died around 483 B.C.

The Buddha’s Basic Teachings
Suffering was clearly the Buddha’s departure point both for his truth-seeking and his teaching, and relief from suffering was its climax.6 The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths as the Way to nirvana: self-liberation from the cycle of rebirth, suffering, and ignorance. The Four Noble Truths, the essence of his teachings, concern “the nature and extent of suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation.”7

First Noble Truth: Recognize that life is duhkha, generally translated as “suffering.” To the Buddha, being or life in and of itself is always impermanent or incomplete because everything is transitory or constantly changing. Nothing stays the same. The impermanence or incompleteness of existence is duhkha itself. To all creatures, suffering is plentiful and unavoidable.

Second Noble Truth: Perceive that craving for or clinging to things causes present sufferings. This dislocation of one’s intention is called tanha, commonly translated as “desire,” “thirst,” “attachment,” “craving,” or “yearning.” So the aim of religious life for Buddhists is freedom or liberation from all tanha, which causes duhkha.

Third Noble Truth: Know and believe that this suffering ends when one “extinguishes” the flames of wanting or burning desires. Thus, nirvana, which literally means “blowing out,” is sometimes described as the ceasing of craving or extinction of desire. For this stage, the Buddha confidently declares, “…whoever in this world overcomes his selfish cravings, his sorrows fall away from him, like drops of water from a lotus flower.”8

Fourth Noble Truth: Know that desires and sufferings end when one practices the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path is a methodological system of therapy and liberation. It introduces the necessary elements of the spiritual yet practical path to self-liberation when one diligently practices the following on a daily basis:

  1. correct view
  2. correct motive
  3. correct speech
  4. correct conduct
  5. correct occupation
  6. correct effort
  7. correct mindfulness
  8. correct contemplation

After the death of the Buddha, the highly philosophical religion flourished in India for about five centuries. Emperor Ashoka of India in the third century B.C. sent out Buddhist missionaries to many countries to spread the teachings of the Buddha. Buddhism gradually began to decline in popularity, for it mainly appealed to a certain group of people in society rather than the masses, who could not follow strict precepts of the Buddha (e.g., do not drink, do not eat meat, etc.). Before it became a minor voice in India, the religion spread to its neighboring countries, and has been expanding around the globe for the past two thousand years.

Two major branches of Buddhism exist in Asia: Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada (“Little Raft”) is strictly ascetic in nature, and has appealed to monks predominantly in these Southeast Asia countries: Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar (Burma). Mahayana (“Big Raft”) Buddhism emerged about four hundred years after the Buddha’s death. Mahayana Buddhism is less strict in interpreting the Buddhist sutras, and has attracted many lay people and flourished in the Far Eastern countries of China, Japan, and Korea. To treat Buddhism as an Eastern religion is an obsolete view, for Buddhism has been steadily increasing its influence in the West in the last 150 years as well.

It is important to mention here that Buddhism, as in Christianity, has a variety of branches, ranging from non-theistic, iconoclastic Zen Buddhism to pantheistic (pan-Buddhistic, Buddhists would argue) Pure Land Buddhism. Accordingly, their buddhologies (plural, as in theologies) on key doctrines such as karma, nirvana, and enlightenment vary from tradition to tradition.

Interacting with Buddhism
In the current backdrop of postmodern religious pluralism, in which religion A is as valid and true as religion B, Christian-Buddhist interface would be fruitless if focused only upon the religions’ similarities without examining their differences as well. Two major irreconcilable differences between Christianity and Buddhism are (1) the existence of God and (2) Jesus as the historical incarnation of God.9

In today’s academic circles, the debate on whether the Buddha was an agnostic or atheist is still ongoing. He simply preferred not to speak of the Divine, for he firmly believed that speaking about the metaphysical would not relieve anyone from his or her suffering. To him, it did not matter whether God exists or not, since God’s existence is irrelevant to human sufferings.

On the contrary, Christians believe the Judeo-Christian God exists and has names (e.g., the name God gave Moses in the burning bush was “I AM WHO I AM”; Exodus 3:14). Christians maintain that God has also revealed himself to humanity through the Bible and in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the incarnate being, the consummate revelation of God by himself, who came down from heaven to redeem the children of God. In Buddhism, there is no specific mentioning of “beginning” per se, and no sharp-lined separation exists between the Absolute and its creations.

In Judeo-Christianity, there is a distinctive beginning and an end executed in time. The very first verse in the Bible proclaims God as the Creator of the universe: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). The Christian religion teaches that the creator/creature difference exists, and that the distinction is of monumental importance.

Based upon the above items discussed briefly, Christians would do well to refrain from initially striking interfaith dialogue with Buddhists at a supernatural level on Christian theology-based topics. Christian presuppositions of supernatural nature (such as the existence of God and creation) neither attract nor convince the Buddhist mind.

Beginning the Conversation
Instead, I propose we start a conversation with Buddhists at the ground level (since Buddhism is a down-to-earth, existentialistic religion in essence), and that we start moving up (literally and figuratively) from there. In other words, as Kenneth Cragg, the renowned Christian scholar on Islam, suggests, we ought to start from where they start. Since suffering is an issue many Buddhists (if not all) can identify with, it is a good and safe topic to use.

In Buddhism there is a direct link between one’s attitude and elimination of suffering, as emphasized by their Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddhist view of humbleness as emptying oneself is very similar to the incarnational model of Jesus Christ (cf. Philippians 2). Although God himself, Jesus did not demand and cling to his rights as God. The key concept of Jesus’ humility is portrayed well in Philippians 2:3. He “emptied” himself or made himself nothing. Jesus was our Suffering Savior who died for us in our places because of our sins (Isaiah 53). He humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death on the cross–a Christian aspect Buddhists tremendously admire. 

In short, Buddhism is a religion of “self power,” whereas Christianity is a religion of “other power.” In Christian faith, God rejects auto-soterism (salvation by self). When in dialogue with Buddhists, it is imperative to emphasize that there is no power within people that can save them. Salvation by human efforts, however sincere they might be, is a futile attempt that ends in despair and result in eternal damnation. Buddhism may offer temporary relief from suffering, but it does not offer liberation from death, the ultimate test of authentic religion.

Based upon my experiences with Buddhists, the most effective way of reaching them with the gospel is demonstration of Christian love in person, on a long-term basis. Some of my relatives in Korea are devout Buddhists. I had been sharing the message of Jesus with a cousin of mine for a few years. A perennial Buddhist on her (my) mother’s side, my family’s Christian action (forgiveness and love) toward her family in the past had touched her.

When her son (my nephew) came to study at a Christian school in Washington State two-and-a-half years ago, I took care of his needs (spiritual, emotional, and legal) as much as I could. Two years after his arrival, in the fall of 2009, she accepted Jesus, was baptized in a church, and is growing in the knowledge of Christ.

Before the baptism, she made sure she removed all her Buddhist amulets, paintings, and artifacts from her house. It was not the Christian message initially, but the prayers and actions of Christian family and friends eventually motivated her and her son to make the decision to leave Buddhism and follow Christ.

According to one survey I did with Korean Buddhists, many Buddhists respected Jesus and his teachings, but they got turned off by Christians’ “arrogant” attitudes and “discrepancies between Christian faith and lifestyles.” Christians’ insensitivity, arrogance, impatience, lack of love, and our lack of grace offend them.10 The common denominator between Christianity and Buddhism is self-giving for the benefit of others, as Jesus did on the cross.11

Both Christians and Buddhists are called to pursue selflessness or self-offering for other humans as a goal and virtue in life. God saves and glorifies through suffering. Let us intentionally step into the broken world to save and encourage suffering humanity, one person at a time, thereby fulfilling the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, honoring God and loving our neighbors.


1. Newbigin, Lesslie. 1978. Open Secret. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 206.

2. Barnes, Michael. 2002. Theology and the Dialogue of Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 148.

3. Neill, Stephen. 1978. Call to Mission. Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress Press, 9.

4. Stott, John R.W. 1975. Christian Mission in the Modern World. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 77.

5. Newbigin, 1978, 208.

6. Fernando, Antony. 1991. Buddhism and Christianity: Their Inner Affinity. Kelaniya, Sri Lanka: Empire Press, 182.

7. Gowans, Christopher W. 2003. Philosophy of the Buddha: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 119.

8. Dhammapada, trans. Juan Mascaro. 1973. New York: Penguin Classics, 336.

9. Yandell, Keith and Harold Netland. 2009. Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 181-212.

10. Im, Chandler H. 2008. “Korean Christians and Won Buddhists in Dialogue on Suffering.” Ph.D. Dissertation. Pasadena, Calif.: Fuller Theological Seminary, 195-196.

11. Im, 2008, 167-168.

Dr. Chandler H. Im is director of Ethnic Ministries at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. He also serves as director of the Ethnic America Network and is adjunct professor of missions at Faith Evangelical Seminary (Tacoma, Washington, USA).