by David E. Housholder
Editor's note: Here's a heads-up about a popular false religion-that could be either a peril to your congregation, or an opportunity to share Christ with lost souls. The author assumes the latter.
The XIV Dalai Lama is coming to a town near you this spring-and he'll be sharing a religion that is superficially appealing but which a knowledgeable commentator describes as a "path of mystic occultism, superstition, and ultimate despair"*
His office has announced that he will begin a yearlong, worldwide teaching and public speaking tour, beginning April 24. Stops in the U.S. include San Francisco, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Madison, Wis., and Western Massachusetts. He will speak on "Finding Inner Peace in a World of Turmoil," as well as the fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism. Thousands of media, adherents, and spiritual seekers are expected at each location.
How did Tibetan Buddhism-an eclectic mix of elements selected from Buddhism, Hinduism, and Shamanism, practiced mainly on the high plateaus of Inner Asia for 1,500 years-become a worldwide sensation?
Most importantly, what can pastors do to help their congregations share Christ with followers of this cultural phenomenon?
To begin to answer those questions-and we will in this and two succeeding articles-we have to look back another 1,000 years to 563 B.C. and to the birth of Siddhartha Gautama in a small kingdom, now part of Nepal.
A Common Beginning
Gautama, a sheltered prince and highly sensitive young man ventured on a rare walk outside his palace walls and saw poverty, disease, and death-and a begging monk who appeared peaceful and happy. As he pondered the suffering he had witnessed, and the contrasting look of peace in the face of the monk, Gautama decided to leave his luxurious compound to solve the riddle of life.
For six years he wandered the countryside as a beggar monk, nearly starving to death. Finally, he sat under a tree and swore he would not leave until he found the answer for which he was searching. There he remained until he achieved "the great enlightenment," the supreme happiness that comes when all passion, hatred, and delusion die out. From then on he was known as "The Buddha" or "the enlightened one."
A New Path Emerges
Gautama began gathering disciples and preaching around 528 B.C. His teaching included a concept he learned from his Hindu mentors, karma, the ironclad impersonal law of reward and punishment.
Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, described karma in his book, The Way to Freedom, as "the consequences of your actions committed either in the past life or in the earlier part of this life." He also stated, "The consequences of karma are definite: negative actions always bring about suffering, and positive actions always bring happiness."
Some actions considered negative in Buddhism are killing any living thing, stealing, adultery, lying, and drinking alcohol. Positive actions include "right" feeling, "right" speech, "right" living, and "right" effort.
Buddha taught that ultimate truth can never be learned from man or revealed by a god, but can only be learned through the meditative experience of each individual.
Christians believe God loved humanity and took the initiative to reach out in the form of Jesus Christ to provide grace and salvation. In Buddhism, a person strives to lose passion, hatred, and delusion in order to become free from the necessity of further purification through karmic rebirth. In Christianity, the soul will be retained for eternity in heaven with God. In Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to achieve nirvana, a vague metaphysical state of extinction.
A key word in some schools of Buddhism is "compassion." But for a Buddhist, compassion is not caring demonstrated in action, as in the Christian understanding, but is a mental attitude that wishes all sentient beings, including animals (who might have been or will be reborn as a human), liberated from suffering.
The ideals at the heart of Buddhism are the "Three Jewels": 1) the Buddha, which refers to the historical Buddha and the ideal of Buddhahood, which is open to all, 2) the Dharma, which means the teachings of Buddha or the truth that he understood, and 3) the Sangha, which is the spiritual community. You become a Buddhist by making these the central principles of your life.
The Spread of Buddhism
The path that Siddartha laid out for his followers required long hours of meditation that were difficult for ordinary people to follow, so his disciples organized themselves into monastic communities, where lay people provided monks with food in return for spiritual training. Each monk or nun was allowed to follow his or her own path to enlightenment, which resulted in the founding of new Buddhist schools.
By the time of Gautama's death in 483 B.C., Buddhism had been preached across northern India. Its doctrine of self-reliance was good news to people burdened by the Hindu caste system and the excessive rituals required by the priests. Early missionaries spread their message to the rest of India and Southeast Asia, resulting in an increase in the number of sects and schools. Eventually, missionary monks traveled the Silk Road west to Afghanistan, east to China, and north through Nepal, Tibet, and into Russia. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries European explorers began traveling the trade routes east, bringing back spices and a fascination with Buddhist ideas.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Buddhism came to the Americas with Chinese immigrants. American intellectuals, like Henry David Thoreau, became interested in Asian culture and travel to Japan became fashionable. Following the Vietnam War, Southeast Asian immigrants founded temples and gained Western converts. There are about three million Buddhists in the U.S. today.
Becoming a World-Wide Religion
The Tibetan strain of Buddhism truly became a worldwide religion when the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Exiled from Tibet in 1959 when the Chinese Communists annexed his country, he became a spiritual and political cause celebre. A tireless advocate for his people, he has also used his fame to spread Tibetan Buddhism and raise money outside of Asia.
With its emphasis on individualism and relative truth, Tibetan Buddhism is very popular with those dissatisfied with traditional Western religions. Tibetan Buddhist principles have been adopted by popular culture, corporations, and some churches. Asian immigrants to the U.S. have settled throughout the country, bringing their culture and religion to even small towns.
Are these changes threats? Of course, they are. But they are also a gift from God-an opportunity for us invite people into His Kingdom who may never have had the chance to hear of Christ's saving love. What a responsibility. What a joy!
*M. Tsering in Jesus in a New Age Dalai Lama World: Defending and Sharing Christ with Buddhists.
David E. Housholder served for over 20 years in India among Tibetan Buddhist refugees.
He is Interserve USA's EthnoServe director and is the co-author, along with M. Tsering, of
Jesus in a New Age, Dalai Lama World: Defending and Sharing Christ with Buddhists.