Buddhism’s popularity is growing. In 1910, Buddhism had a following of approximately 138 million individuals. By 2010, that number had reached roughly 495 million (source). From 1990 to 2001, Buddhism grew in the United States by 170 percent and is now the fourth most practiced religion in America (source). Fueling some of this growth is a slew of celebrities who have embraced and promoted Buddhist philosophy and teachings. Some of those celebrities include…
• George Lucas
• Steven Seagal
• Orlando Bloom
• Jennifer Lopez
• Keanu Reeves
• Richard Gere
• Oliver Stone (film director)
• Michael Stipe (R.E.M.)
• Adam Yauch (MCA of the Beastie Boys)
• Kate Bosworth
• Tina Turner
• Phil Jackson (basketball coach)
• Goldie Hawn
For the purpose of helping Christians be better ambassadors to friends and family members who consider themselves Buddhists, I’d like to share with you a bit about the origin and founder of Buddhism, the teachings of Buddha, and some suggestions on reaching out to Buddhists with the gospel.
Buddhism traces its roots back to a man by the name of Siddhartha Gautama. Siddhartha, now known as “the Buddha,” was born in Lumbini, a tiny village at the foot of the Himalayas in modern Nepal, just northeast of India. It was long believed that Siddhartha was born around 560 BC, but the modern consensus among scholars regarding that date has changed. Scholars now believe there is better evidence he was born around 480 BC. (Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism, 9)
As for what was happening at that time in the Bible…
• Esther became queen in 479 BC (about one year after Siddhartha was born)
• Nehemiah led a return of exiled Jews back to Jerusalem (to rebuild its walls) in 444 BC
• Malachi was prophesying from about 450–430 BC
(Date source: John Walvoord & Roy Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary)
Now, unlike the Biblical account of Jesus’ life, whose words and life story were written down by eyewitnesses and those who were alive during His lifetime, the biography of Siddhartha Gautama was not written during his lifetime. In fact, the earliest available accounts of Siddhartha’s life were collected from scattered accounts and oral traditions that were still floating around between 200 BC and AD 200—two to four hundred years after his death. (Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism, 15)
Today, historians and even Buddhist scholars and authors, are convinced that many legendary and mythological embellishments have crept into Buddha’s biography. Nevertheless, millions of Buddhists continue to believe the story. For that reason, I’ll share with you some about his life.
Buddhist literature tells us that Siddhartha was born into a royal Hindu family, the son of a king.
At the time of his birth, light allegedly spread throughout the world and the Earth shook. Upon coming out of his mother’s womb, immediately and quite miraculously, we are told he stood, walked seven paces, scanned in all directions, and said in a noble voice that he was the foremost being in the world, and that this would be his last rebirth. (Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism, 17)
It is taught that Siddhartha spent more than 100,000 past lives as an animal and human working off his “karma” and building up the perfections he would need to finally become a Buddha (“enlightened one”) like others who had achieved that state before him. (Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism, 15, 32)
After he was born, Siddhartha’s father, a king, worried that his son would one day leave the safe surroundings of the palace. To prevent this, he ordered a high wall to be built around the palace and the surrounding park.
Inside these walls, Siddhartha grew up in a world of plenty and beauty. Siddhartha’s father gave him servants, musicians, dancing girls, and even built Siddhartha three palaces, behind the walls—one for winter, one for summer, and one for the rainy season, as well as enclosed parks and hunting grounds.
Siddhartha could have whatever he wanted, but like Solomon, who lived 400 years earlier, Siddhartha was not happy. Tired of living like a prisoner, Siddhartha told his father, “I must go out of the palace gate and see how other people live.”
The king told him, “Very well my son, you shall go outside the palace wall to see how people live in my city. But first I must prepare things, so that all would be good and proper for my noble son’s visit.” Siddhartha’s father ordered the streets to be cleaned, decorated and cleared of all elderly and sick people. When the people had cleaned up and decorated the city the king said, “Now you can go, my dear son, and see the city as you please.”
Four different excursions into the city would change Siddhartha’s life. It was on those excursions that Siddhartha discovered what Buddhists call:
“The Four Troubling Sights”
1. A Hunched Over Old Man.
When Siddhartha asked his servant (a man by the name of “Channa”) what happened to this man, Channa told him that the man was old, just as everyone someday would become.
The second troubling sight was…
2. A Sick Man
This man was on the ground, twisting his body, holding his stomach with both hands and crying out in pain at the top of his voice. All over his face and body were purple patches, his eyes were rolling, and he was gasping for breath. For the second time in his life something made Siddhartha very sad. Siddhartha was told that all people were liable to be sick and suffer pain like that individual.
The very next day Siddhartha made a third excursion. This time he saw his third troubling sight…
3. A Funeral Procession
In that procession was a corpse on its way to cremation, with followers weeping bitterly. When Siddhartha asked what that meant, he was informed that was the way of life, and sooner or later both the rich and the poor would have to die.
This was heartbreaking to Siddhartha. Suddenly he realized that life was fleeting, and all of his earthly comforts seemed meaningless.
On Siddhartha’s fourth excursion into the city many days later, he saw his fourth troubling sight…
4. A Monk Begging for Food
This man was a happy man wearing an orange colored robe. Siddhartha asked his assistant Channa, “Who is this man wearing an orange robe? His hair is shaved off. Why does he look so happy? How does he live and what does he do for a living?”
Channa said, “That is a monk, he lives in a temple, goes from house to house for his food and goes from place to place telling people how to be peaceful and good.”
Siddhartha longed for the tranquility that he saw on the monk’s face and decided that was the lifestyle for him (the life of a begging monk). So, that night, at the age of 29, when all were asleep, Siddhartha arose and took a last look at his sleeping wife and his baby son who had just been born. He mounted his favorite white horse and rode past the palace gate and out into the darkness.
On that night Siddhartha left behind his riches, his beautiful palaces, his fine clothing and food, his family and his kingdom in search of fulfillment and enlightenment through the path of rigorous self-denial (ascetism), the life of a beggar monk. Outside of the palace, Siddhartha cut off his hair with his sword, and put on the orange colored robe of a monk.
The night that he left his home to seek enlightenment became known to Buddhists as “The Great Renunciation.” His renunciation of family life to this day stands as a precedent or example that Buddhist monks and nuns seek to emulate.
Siddhartha, now a beggar, spent his time wandering from place to place seeking to grow in wisdom. He studied the Hindu scriptures under Brahman (Hindu) priests. But Siddhartha, disillusioned with the teachings of Hinduism, continued his quest elsewhere. Siddhartha tried this life of rigorous self-denial for six years, fasting on just a few drops of bean soup a day, until his body hair fell out and he became so thin that he could hardly stand. Still not finding the peace he was looking for, Siddhartha abandoned his quest as hopeless, but wondered, “Might there be another path?”
According to Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha found that other path.
It happened one morning under a fig tree. There Siddhartha had spent the night sitting in deep meditation. And, according to Buddhist tradition, just as the sun was coming up, Siddhartha’s mind was opened (“like a lotus flower that opens up when it blooms”) and the light of “supreme knowledge” poured in upon him. The truths that supposedly poured into Siddhartha’s mind were what Buddhists call:
According to Buddhism, these truths were truths that had been lost and forgotten by the human race. As these four noble truths (which we will consider momentarily) poured in on Siddhartha, we are told that he reached the highest degree of consciousness Buddhists believe one can reach…
At that moment, under the fig tree (just as was the case at his birth), Buddhists writings say that light spread throughout the world and the Earth shook. Of course, there’s no record of this outside of Buddhist tradition. But, regardless, it was there under that fig tree, at age 35, that Siddhartha allegedly attained the bliss and knowledge he had been seeking.
Siddhartha devoted the next 45 years of his life to wandering through India teaching the people the path to enlightenment.
When the people of Siddhartha’s day asked, “Are you a god?” He said “No.”
“Are you an angel?”
“Are you a saint?”
“Then what are you?”
That answer became his title, “The Buddha.” The word Buddha literally means: the “awakened” one or “enlightened” one. (I don’t like referring to Siddhartha by the title “Buddha,” because he was not enlightened. His understanding was darkened actually. And we’ll see why here momentarily.)
Siddhartha’s sermons and teachings were eventually written down and compiled into a collection of teachings known as the Tripitaka.
Tripitaka means “three baskets” and was applied to Siddhartha’s teachings when they were finally written down because they were kept in three separate containers. The Tripitaka is different from the Bible. The Bible claims to be a revelation inspired by God Himself as the Holy Spirit moved certain men to pen the words that they penned (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16).
Siddhartha never claimed to receive any revelation from God. He never reported any visions or communications from God at all. All of Siddhartha’s “truths” were gained by introspection rather than revelation. (Rodney Stark, Discovering God, 243)
This is a huge difference between the Tripitaka (the teachings of Siddhartha) and the Bible.
Well, Siddhartha’s life came to an end at the age of 80 around 400 BC. But the religion that Siddhartha started has grown into the fourth largest religion in the world today, outsized only by…
To help you get a feel for how many people that is, consider this. There are approximately 328 million people living in the United States, as of 2019 (Source).
Contrast the number of Buddhists in the world with the number of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. As of 2019, there are only about 16 million Mormons (Source) and 8 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in the world (Source). Well, that’s just a drop in the bucket next to 495 million Buddhists.
Secondly let’s talk for a bit about…
Siddhartha’s View of God
Surprisingly, Buddhism in its purest form actually has more in common with humanism and agnosticism. To Siddhartha, the existence of God was totally irrelevant and unimportant. To Siddhartha, a personal…
• or God
…was absolutely unnecessary.
According to Siddhartha, the world operates by natural power and law, not divine command.
Now, in spite of Buddha’s teachings regarding God, many Buddhists have deified Siddhartha. In other words, they have made him out to be God! They build temples to him and statues of him where they bow down to worship and pray. But Buddhism in its purest sense (from the lips of Siddhartha) is not about following after God or knowing Him in a personal way.
So, what is Buddhism about? It’s more of a philosophy, a body of teachings given to instruct people on how to escape suffering. Escape suffering? Yes. Let me explain.
You’ll recall that when Siddhartha was sitting under the fig tree that four “noble truths” supposedly flooded his mind. Those four noble truths, as they are called, are the foundation of all that Buddhism teaches.
What were those four “noble truths”?
Buddha taught that all of life (from birth to death) is permeated with suffering and that even death brings no relief. Why? Siddhartha, having been influenced by Hinduism, believed that we are stuck on a repeating cycle of life, death and rebirth. This cycle is known to Buddhists and Hindus as Samsara.
So, life is permeated with suffering and death brings no relief (Why? Because we keep coming back over and over again!). That is the first “noble truth.”
Now, in response to Siddhartha’s mention of suffering…
Of course, Christians acknowledge that there is some suffering in this life (sin has had devastating consequences and none of us are immune to those consequences). But we don’t think suffering permeates all of life. We actually believe there is a lot to be thankful for in this life, a lot to rejoice over! There is surely more good in the world than suffering.
Ask most people, “How are you doing?” and most say “Good!” Some are lying, I know. But most humans have homes to live in, food to eat, friends to enjoy life with, etc. Surely the suicide rate would be much higher if suffering permeated all of life as Siddhartha said it does.
And when suffering does come our way, we are not pessimistic about it (like Siddhartha) because we have the Lord’s help in the midst of it (Rom. 8:37). We have His assurance that He’s working all things together for good (Rom. 8:28), and the hope of a future life free of suffering (Rev. 21).
The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:16…
2 Corinthians 4:16-18
16 “Therefore we do not lose heart [in the midst of suffering, persecution, etc]. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. 17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, 18 while we do not look at the things which are seen [this world and its suffering], but at the things which are not seen [God, Heavenly realities]. For the things which are seen [suffering] are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
So, we don’t lose heart in the midst of suffering. Jesus has overcome death. The grave is empty. He’s coming back. And we rejoice in the future He has in store for all those who love Him.
Now, on to the second “noble truth” Siddhartha had…
Buddha taught that the cause of (or origin of) all of man’s suffering was his selfish desires and cravings that are ever on the lookout for gratification. They lead us to do all kinds of awful things which result in bad “karma” which leads to further rebirths which result in more suffering.
If there are any of you here who are unfamiliar with the concept of karma, let me summarize for you the Buddhist understanding of it. Karma is that teaching that says “Whatever is sown in this life, must be reaped in the next life.” Or in other words, “the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, decides one’s fate in future existences.” Under karma, there can be no appeal and no mercy. Karma, according to Buddhist tradition, is absolutely impersonal.
Well, the Bible denies the existence of karma when it makes clear that a person does not live multiple lives.
“And as it is appointed for men to die [how many times?] once, but after this [a rebirth? No. Another chance at life? No.] the judgment.”
There is no such thing as karma or future rebirths here on the Earth. There is judgment for sins and Hell for the unrepentant. And there is eternity with the Lord for the redeemed.
What the Bible offers mankind is far better than some impersonal force that exacts repayment for bad “karma.” The Bible offers mankind a personal God who loves us, who listens to our prayers, who has mercy on those who repent, and who lovingly controls the circumstances surrounding our lives to ensure that all things work together for good for those who love Him (Rom. 8:28).
I’ll take the true, living, merciful, and loving God of the Bible over Buddhism’s impersonal karma any day!
Now, moving along, notice Siddhartha’s cure for suffering. This is the third “noble truth” of Buddhism…
Siddhartha believed that all desires are bad (they lead to bad karma and more suffering!). So, he proposed that the way to end suffering is to eliminate all desires. (And I’ll tell you how Siddhartha proposed we do that in a moment).
But, in response to this supposed need to eliminate all desires, we disagree. Christians believe that there are some bad desires, sinful desires (lusting after a person other than your spouse, selfish desires for fame, riches, power and so on) but we also believe there are good desires as well.
For example, the Bible tells us to “Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts” (1 Cor. 14:1).
Paul spoke of “having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Phil. 1:23).
There are all kinds of good desires! So, we reject Siddhartha’s teaching that even they must go. We are thankful to have good, pure, God-honoring desires. As Christians, we are eager to walk in those good desires and deny our flesh regarding any bad ones that come up.
But back to Buddhism…
How is the Buddhist to eliminate all of his desires as Siddhartha proposed?
Well, Siddhartha said the way to eliminate desires, is by experiencing enlightenment, obtaining a state of consciousness called nirvana. And according to Siddhartha, once a person obtains nirvana and ends the desires that lead to suffering, he or she will escape samsara (the cycle of life, death and rebirth).
So, that is the goal in Buddhism: obtain nirvana and escape the cycle of life.
And I’ll have more to say about that in a minute. But the question that arises in the mind of the person pursuing being a Buddhist, is, “How do I obtain Nirvana?”
This eightfold path is also commonly called “The Middle Way” by Buddhists. Why? According to Buddha, enlightenment and nirvana lie at the end of a “middle way” between a life of luxury and a life of unnecessary poverty and self-torment.
Buddhists believe that if anyone could know this to be the case it was Siddhartha. He had himself experienced the spiritual dead ends at the ends of both of those paths.
So, what is “The Eightfold Path” that Buddhists are following in their attempt to achieve Nirvana, or enlightenment? To briefly summarize, it is a prescribed path of ethical conduct. It is a very long list of Siddhartha’s instructions on how to speak, how to think, how to act, how to work, how to live, how to concentrate, how to meditate, and on and on.
How is one to do all of this? Siddhartha said by…
• making effort
• stirring up your energy
• exerting your mind
• manly perseverance
And then, according to the Siddhartha, if a person successfully completes “The Eightfold Path” (something most Buddhists believe is nearly impossible), he will reach the mountain top experience in all of Buddhism, nirvana.
According to Siddhartha, nirvana can happen in this life time. If it does, then upon death, a Buddhist, will enter into what is called: parinirvana.
Buddhists don’t really know. Why not? Siddhartha himself never gave a detailed description of what it was. His most detailed description of parinirvana was this:
“There is disciples, a condition, where there is neither earth nor water, neither air nor light, neither limitless space, nor limitless time, neither any kind of being, neither ideation nor non-ideation, neither this world nor that world. There is neither arising nor passing away, nor dying, neither cause nor effect, neither change nor standstill.” –Siddhartha Gautama (Source)
Well, that’s confusing! This sounds like a state of nothingness doesn’t it? And that’s what it is! The word nirvana literally means “The blowing out”
That is what Buddhists are living for today. Nonexistence. Release from the cycle of life. Suicide in a sense…all in an attempt to escape suffering in future lives for bad karma!
How sad is this? Knowing this stirs my heart to reach out Buddhists. The message of the Bible is so superior to that of the Tripitaka, I want to share it with them. Do you? Well allow me then to give you some…
1. Love and befriend the Buddhist.
1 Corinthians 13:1
“If I speak with tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
I encourage you to show Buddhists your Savior in the way that you treat them and love them.
2. Ask the Buddhist what he or she believes.
There are different sects within Buddhism. So, don’t assume you know what your friend believes. Ask him questions about his personal beliefs. And then listen carefully to his response. This is a great way to show people that we love them.
3. Ask why he or she believes it.
Were you raised in a Buddhist family? Was it the result of study and research? Hearing their answers will help you tailor your response.
Talk to them about what God has done in your life. Talk to them about your freedom from guilt, the assurance of heaven (no more pain), and your personal relationship with Christ. Tell them how you discovered that God is personal. This is something that sets Christianity apart from Buddhism, the fact that God is personal. Buddhists believe that the ultimate reality is an impersonal void or emptiness. But you’ve discovered that God is personal. Because He is personal, He is able to love us. He can hear and answer our prayers. He can empathize with our suffering (Exodus 3:7, Hebrews 4:15). Share how you have found peace and joy knowing that God loves you and that you can take your cares and concerns to Him.
5. Talk to them about God’s grace, not only for salvation but for transformation.
Buddhists long to live an ethical life. But they have no help to do it. Talk to them about how the God of the Bible offers His help, His grace, and His Holy Spirit to make us into the kind of people He desires for us to be!
6. Avoid confusing terms.
Buddhists might confuse terminology like “new birth,” “rebirth,” “regeneration,” or “born again” with reincarnation.Try to avoid those phrases.
7. Ask friendly, yet challenging questions.
• How do you know that Siddhartha was right?
• Is there any good evidence that Buddhism is actually true?
• How do you know that you’ll have another life?
8. Give them a New Testament to read.
The Word of God is living and powerful and has opened the mind of many Buddhists to consider the claims of Christ. If they are not much of a reader, you might loan them a copy of the Gospel of John DVD or the JESUS Film. The Jesus movie has been translated into hundreds of different languages and many of them are embedded on the DVD. What a joy it could be for them to watch a great movie about the life of Christ in their native language (Japanese, Chinese, etc.)
9. Don’t forget to pray.
Our battle is not against flesh and blood the Bible says, but unseen forces that are at work in the lives of people leading them astray. Our Buddhist friends and family members could certainly benefit from our prayers. James said, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” (James 5:16)
CHARLIE H. CAMPBELL
is an itinerant Christian apologist, the founder of ABR, and the author of several books and videos, some of which include:
• Archaeological Evidence for the Bible
• One Minute Answers to Skeptics
• Dakota Knox & the Archaeology Thief + Dakota Knox: London, Love, & Terror
• The Bible’s Scientific Accuracy and Foresight
• Scrolls & Stones: Compelling Evidence the Bible Can Be Trusted
• Evidence for God
• The Case for Christianity
• Answering Atheists
• The Case for the Resurrection
• If God is Loving, Why is there Evil and Suffering?
• Homosexuality and the Bible: Answering Objections to the Biblical View
• Teaching and Preaching God’s Word
• Apologetics Quotes
WOULD YOU LIKE CHARLIE CAMPBELL TO SPEAK AT YOUR CHURCH?
Charlie Campbell speaks at churches and conferences throughout the year. If you are a pastor and would like to have him speak at your church or event, please contact ABR here and let us know.