The Buddhist Challenge
The Buddhist world is one of the most complex socio-religious groups to understand, in part because it blends very easily wherever it goes. In Japan, it lives alongside Shintoism. The Shinto priests get to do the weddings and the Buddhist monks do the funerals. In China, it is being embraced by an atheistic government, in part because it has no supreme deity, and no competing vision of the future. Hundreds of Buddhist shrines are appearing everywhere on state owned property. Thousands of businesses in China have installed small statues of Buddha, which on a quick glance seem to be making more money than the store. Patrons will pile up money in front of the statue in hope of receiving good karma for financial prosperity.
Here in a microcosm illustrates the glaring contradictions found of the Buddhist world. Classical Buddhism shunned wealth, idolatry and superstition. Modern Buddhism in China markets itself as lucky charm for a greed-driven culture. Though classical Buddhism touts its reverence for all living things, when Buddhism has a majority, it has shown itself to be a vicious and deadly persecutor, such as in Sri Lanka among Christians and in Myanmar among Muslims. In these lands, churches have been bombed and whole populations ethnically cleansed by Buddhists.
What are we to make of these contradictions? Simply this—Buddhism adapts itself to whatever it needs to be for survival. In the west, Buddhism has rebranded itself as the new age movement—ready to fill the void of those looking for something “spiritual.” Its philosophy has appeared in subtle ways in our movies, songs and entertainment, blended with vaguely Christian sentiments. In short, Buddhism is perhaps the most syncretistic religion in the world. It is one of the reasons it has traveled so far. It is also the reason it is hard to count its numbers. Are people Shintoist or zen followers? Are they atheist Communists or Buddhist devotees? It would seem the answer is Yes. Thus the enigma of Buddhism. There is no central figurehead or authority, and so Buddhism is essentially a free for all, replete with thousands of sects, each with their own unique ideas and practices.
In spite of this complexity (or maybe even as a result of it) there has been tremendous harvest among Buddhist peoples, with over 32 million followers of Christ today. This is roughly 6 percent of the estimated 530 million Buddhists in the world. The most significant breakthrough has been among the Koreans, where at least 10 percent of their total ethnic population have embraced the gospel. What is equally remarkable is that this missionary church has sent out over 30,000 missionaries. Proportionately this is ten times the number of missionaries sent from Western countries.
Of course, much remains to be done. There are still over 400 Buddhist peoples that are under 1% evangelical Christian. But the progress among many larger groups gives us great hope that the move of God in these places will become a bridge into the entire Buddhist world. The largest and most resistant to the gospel are the over 50 Thai related peoples in South East Asia. Let’s pray that God would move powerfully in their midst for his glory and namesake.