Buddhism began in South Asia and has spread throughout Asia and the world. A daughter of Hinduism and deeply colored by it, Buddhism is a worldwide missionary faith which influences over 1.38 billion people. Over 120 least-reached Buddhist people groups have their home in South Asia, especially in India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Nepal. Bhutan is the only officially Tibetan Buddhist kingdom on earth. Lumbini in Nepal is considered the traditional birthplace of the Buddha, and Sri Lanka prides itself on being the oldest continually Buddhist country on earth. Bihar in India is the birthplace of Buddhism, traditionally considered to be the site of Buddha’s enlightenment, but Buddhist thinking influences a much wider population.
A do-it-yourself religion, Buddhism has great appeal in the West and much of the funding to revitalize Buddhism in Asia comes from this source. The Tibetan form of Buddhism is especially strong. Many Tibetans were expelled from China with their spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama, who is now headquartered in Himachal Pradesh, India. There are still over thirty-five Tibetan settlements and numerous smaller communities in India where they seek to keep their cultural identity alive while adapting to life in a foreign country.
Neo-Buddhists also figure prominently as hundreds of thousands of Dalit and OBC (Other Backward Castes) of India seek to convert wholesale to Buddhism to escape the oppressive social evils of the caste system in Hinduism. In addition to these Buddhist groups, there are more than two hundred other smaller tribal/ethnic religious people groups. Pray for God to shine his light in the hearts of those living in the shadow of Buddha in South Asia and around the world.
- Distinctive. Pray for the Holy Spirit to reveal that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, and is the only unique Son of God who has come to bring us life and that more abundantly.
- Doors. Pray for God to provide divine appointments and open doors of opportunity, encounters and strategic ministry positions for believers among the Buddhist and other people groups of South Asia.
- Daring. Pray for believers to be bold witnesses who preach the word in season and out of season, building up the hearers and gathering an abundant harvest for God's glory.
- Distant. Pray for even the most remote peoples to receive messengers who are equipped to be the hands and feet of Jesus to their community.
- Discipleship. Pray for solid foundations to be laid in the lives of new believers so that they never turn back from following Jesus and that they grow into the full measure of the stature of Jesus Christ.
- Get resources to pray, to mobilize prayer and to do outreach.
- Discover Northeast Asia’s 121 least-reached peoples.
- Pray for the peoples of Northeast Asia region.
- Obtain daily prayer guides for peoples of this region.
South Asia: The Original Home of Buddhism
(Compiled by Wesley Kawato)
Did you know that Buddhism originated in India, not East Asia, where it is now more widely accepted? It was a reform movement within Hinduism which began perhaps five hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ, during a time when India was divided into numerous petty kingdoms. The founder of Buddhism, Siddharta Guatama, was a Hindu prince of one of India’s petty kingdoms. Historians cannot agree on the date of Siddharta’s birth or the date of his death. They are not even sure to which royal family Siddharta belonged. One of the few things historians agree upon is that Siddharta came from a small Indian kingdom near today’s border with Nepal. That is because Siddharta spoke Pali, a language once spoken in the part of India just south of Nepal.
Little is known about Siddharta Guatama because little was written about him during his lifetime. What we know about his life comes from documents written centuries after his death. Many historians believe these documents were oral traditions eventually put in written form. According to these oral traditions, Siddharta Guatama lived a sheltered life until the age of 35, when he saw human suffering for the first time. That caused him to go on a search for spiritual truth. He tried self-gratification and self-mortification, but found no satisfaction in either extreme. Siddharta then meditated under a fig tree until a “middle path” between these two extremes was revealed to him. That is when he became known as the “Buddha,” or “enlightened one.”
After his death, his closest disciples held a council (traditionally thought to have taken place between 500 BC and 400 BC) to codify the teaching of their leader. This Buddhist council produced two oral records—the “Dharma,” which consisted of the spiritual teachings of the Buddha, and the “Vinya,” which consisted of the rules for organizing a Buddhist monastery. Over the years, sects developed among the followers of Buddha. The key doctrinal issue was the importance of monastic life in achieving enlightenment. Some Buddhists believed it was almost impossible to be enlightened without being a monk.
The Spread of Buddhism in South Asia
Buddhism spread widely in India only after Ashoka the Great, who ruled the Mauryan Empire from 273 to 232 BC, came to power. He converted from Hinduism to Buddhism after being horrified by his own bloody conquest of the kingdom of Kalinga, in what is now the Indian state of Orissa. In Buddhism, Ashoka found a religion that taught peace and tranquility and he soon sent missionaries around the world to spread this religion. We know from historical records that some of these missionaries went as far as Afghanistan, Egypt and Greece, although most traveled to other parts of South Asia. By the end of Askoka’s reign, Buddhism was practiced in all parts of India.
Around 100 BC a Buddhist council was called. A dispute had arisen because some Buddhist sects had accepted doctrinal texts written after a previous Buddhist council. This council was given the task of deciding which texts were orthodox and which were heretical. The council majority voted to translate all Buddhist texts into Sanskrit from the original Pali language. A minority faction argued that the Buddha had forbidden the translation of his teachings into non-Pali languages. The anti-translation faction walked out of the council and later formed the Theravada sect of Buddhism. The majority would later form the Mahayana sect of Buddhism.
After the council, the Theravada sect sought refuge in Sri Lanka, fearing persecution from the Mahayana sect. Missionaries sent out by King Ashoka had converted Sri Lanka to Buddhism 150 years earlier. From Sri Lanka, Theravada Buddhism spread to Southeast Asia in the years to come. Mahayana missionaries took their brand of Buddhism to China, where, after a couple of setbacks, it became widely accepted. The first big wave of Chinese conversions to Buddhism happened around the time of the birth of Christ. Chinese Buddhist missionaries eventually spread the Mahayana sect of their faith to Korea in 372 AD and Japan in 500 AD.
Buddhism Becomes an East Asian Religion
As Buddhism took root in the Far East, it was slowly dying in India. By 1000 AD, an emphasis on monasticism had turned Buddhism into an elitist religion, cut off from the masses. A new form of Hinduism was also spreading across India, one that accepted Buddha as a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.
Then, in 1192, Muslim invaders began conquering India. These invaders sacked Buddhist monasteries, killing monks or forcing them to flee. This loss of leadership caused the extinction of Buddhism in most of India. By 1300, only a few Indian villages in the Himalaya Mountains still had Buddhist majorities. The Muslim armies had bypassed these villages. Today, these are the regions of South Asia where Buddhism remains strong. Buddhism did not resume spreading in India until the 1890s, when the religion took root among India’s untouchables. There was another wave of untouchables who converted to Buddhism in 1956.
Buddhism in the West
For most of its existence, Buddhism had been an Asian religion. Around 250 BC, Buddhist missionaries had reached Greece and Egypt, but they had won few converts. Years later, Roman era writers mentioned the existence of small Buddhist communities in the Eastern Roman Empire, but those communities quickly died out.
The real spread of Buddhism into the West began after 1800 AD, when European scholars began studying Buddhist documents. Some of these scholars took these documents back to their home countries and translated them into European languages. But for most of these scholars, Buddhism was only a matter of intellectual curiosity. There was no thought of converting to Buddhism.
In 1895, Frederick Nietzsche became the first Western scholar to practice Buddhism. However, only a few scholars living in university towns practiced Buddhism prior to 1960. In the United States, Buddhism arrived with the first Chinese immigrants to California around 1850, when the railroads employed them to build the Trans-Continental Railroad. The arrival of Japanese immigrants in California around the 1880s brought a second group of Buddhists to America. Heavy discrimination by the Caucasian majority prevented the spread of Buddhism beyond these Asian ethnic communities.
That changed after 1945, when American servicemen who had fought in Japan or in Korea brought home Buddhist teachings. After 1960, Buddhism took root among some members of the Boomer generation. Today, there are Buddhist temples in every major city of America. Seeing Caucasian Americans within these temples is common, even though Buddhists comprise less than one percent of America’s population. Asians make up the majority of most American Buddhist congregations.
Today, Buddhism is the majority religion of a large part of Asia, from Myanmar to Japan and from Mongolia to Thailand. It also has a strong presence in the Asian minority communities of North America and Europe, along with a few Western devotees. Many of the least-reached peoples live in the remote, mountainous regions of India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. These are the peoples that we will lift in prayer this month.
Buddhism appeals to the human pride by preaching that a person can reach a higher state, called enlightenment, by doing good works. One of the main stumbling blocks in witnessing to a person from a Buddhist background is the doctrine of sin. Many Buddhists do not consider themselves to be sinners because they evaluate themselves like a student being graded on a curve—not by an absolute standard. A Buddhist person believes him or herself to be on the road to Nirvana (i.e., a state of non-being) if his or her community does not consider him or her to be a criminal.
As we pray this month, remember that few people practice pure Buddhism. Ancestor worship and Animism often get mixed into the Buddhism practiced by most Asian people groups. The fear of shaming your ancestors becomes a form of community control that prevents exploration of other religions.
Pray that Christian scholars will develop new methods of outreach that will open the door to reaching Asian Buddhist people groups for Christ. May such scholars find a way to explain the doctrine of sin in a culturally sensitive way that remains true to the Bible. Pray that spiritual strongholds will be broken. Pray for power encounters that will prove that Jesus is more powerful than the spirits.