Unfortunately, not many representatives of different religions can participate in interreligious dialogue because their theological assumptions may be utterly different. A conversation between religious people calls for a high degree of tolerance and acceptance of the other participants’ faith and opposite views. To be a part of a mission as a Christian means to avoid the so-called Christocentric perception of the world and yet remain a true believer. Meanwhile, there are nontheistic religions in which adherents do not believe in God. In this case, it is sure to be hard to gain mutual understanding. Thus, it is of utmost importance to learn more about Buddhism as a major nontheistic religion of the world to find an opportunity for interaction between Christians and Buddhists while missions.
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The Reasons why Buddhism is Classified as a Religion
Indeed, Buddhism is considered to be a religion for a good reason. One may suppose that belief in God or a multitude of divinities is the central part of any religion, but it is a wrong idea. There is a difference between a religion and a philosophical study. It would be better to familiarize oneself with the criteria according to which any religion is identified. According to King, there are eight characteristics of religion: traditionalism, myth and symbol, ideas of salvation, sacred objects and places, sacred actions, sacred writings, sacred community, and sacred experience (as cited in King, 1987, p. 284). In fact, all these attributes may be clearly observed as far as Buddhism is concerned. Buddhism serves as an interesting case of religion unusual enough to stir the imagination and provoke questions about its nature.
Admittedly, religious people believe in the sacristy of the original creative act and the words of the founder. It refers to traditionalism because the community of the believers is sure to strictly follow traditions that originate from their founder’s philosophy of life. As far as Buddhism is concerned, Siddhartha gained an insight sitting under the Bodhi Tree and started teaching people the concept of ending suffering (duhkha) by resisting one’s desires, guilty pleasures, and ambitions. People have been loyally followed his steps performing meditations and different rituals to commemorate their idol. They believe in reincarnation and the fact that Buddha knows about their sorrows.
Furthermore, there is a sacred story about or myth about Buddha’s life that cannot be historically confirmed, but millions of people believe in it, not questioning its credibility. One may remember that Christians believe in Jesus’ existence the same way with no proper proves. The peculiarity of myth is its power to convince people in various details that can hardly be proved at all, even if the existence of the sacred founder is documented. It generally concerns a person’s sayings and actions. For instance, Buddhists believe that Siddhartha asked them to have a critical approach to his teaching, but there is no 100% guarantee that it was he, not one of his adherents.
Also, there are sacred places and writings that are bound to sustain the myth about Buddha’s life. For example, Lumbini is famous as a pilgrimage site because Siddhartha is believed to be born there. The same concerns many places connected with his life. People come there to feel strength and enlightenment emanating from the sacred objects on display. Surprisingly, Buddhists have their own canonical texts or sutras and shastras bearing Buddha’s words. Therefore, “for literate societies, sacred writings are usually the words of holy people, such as the founder of the religious traditions, prophets, or saints (Farhadian, 2010). If Christians read the Gospels, Buddhists can read sutras and shastras to get closer to their ultimate reality.
Besides, no philosophers are given monuments for people to pray to them. It is a well-known fact that there are thousands of Buddha sculptures around the world. Some of them are enormous in size to underline this idol’s timeless glory. Although there may be an argument objection that there were thousands of Lenin statues in the USSR back in time that does not make Leninism a religion, the Buddhist approach to statues slightly differs. One should not forget that Buddhists not only pray their beloved golden Siddharthas but also perform rituals around them and read mantras.
Nevertheless, the main argument why Buddhism is a religion is likely to be the idea of salvation. Usually, there is a God’s representative on the Earth who liberates humanity from something terrible. It is generally recognized that Buddha wanted to save people from lures that prevent them from Nirvana or infinite serenity. To do this, he suggested different principles of living. Among them, meditation ranks highly and is widely used by Buddhists as a daily ritual. The Buddhist community is to be given special attention in the following paragraph.
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The Social System of Buddhism
Buddhism is widely recognized for its sangha – a brilliant community that is considered to be one of the jewels of this religion together with Buddha’s teachings and Buddha himself. In the beginning, sangha could be referred only to the community of monks, but with time it started to be the right term for the whole community of Buddhists, including all adherents. Its structure has become stable and well-organized because it was no longer the group of wandering hermits but a heterogeneous whole. Such a large group of believers needed places of pilgrimage or stupas. Different festivals and other events took place there for many years to attract visitors and probably convert more people to Buddhism.
As time passed, various monasteries have been built in South Asia. No surprise, the monastery gradually became the center of religion and its primary institution. Meanwhile, Buddhism was initially considered to be adverse for the social institution in general because its members were free from social duties like fighting in a war. Somehow the situation has been resolved by Buddhist contribution in society by performing rituals, spiritual guidance, and earning particular merits. As society became literate enough to read sutras, religion became especially important for people’s hearts.
Later on, the adherents of Buddhism learned that the religion could be beneficial for them in practical ways. As an illustration, the so-called bodhisattvas proclaimed themselves people’s saviors and used them to rescue them from spiritual degradation and catastrophes as well. Another issue concerns daily routine and ways to overcome it successfully. There was an opportunity to come to sacred places and ask Buddha for luck in marriage or perform a ritual to get good marks at the university. Such a trivial approach to faith remains these days and is advocated by many religious communities. There is no sense in searching for differences between an American student praying the God to give them an honors degree in engineering and a Chinese student asking Buddha for the best grades in mathematics and claiming that there is no God.
By and large, the functions of medieval Christian and Buddhist monasteries were also quite the same. Among them are determining dates for weddings, providing political shelter, sponsoring festivals, holding festivals, collecting donations, supplying travelers with food, and so on. The monks did their best to help underprivileged members of society like the homeless and older people. It was usual for them to participate in city beautification projects and solve conflicts between mighty citizens. Although there was no real church, Buddhists coped with the role of the great eminence behind the people vested with political power.
It is of great interest that being an open religion, Buddhism was influenced by many other religions during an encounter with neighboring countries. However, no conflicts between Buddhism and indigenous faiths were ever observed. Buddhism turned out to be was a great success in China, where the Daoists and Confucians took Buddhist structures as the role model for their own institutions. Nowadays, there is a diversity of Buddhist monasteries around the world. They can be supported by small neighborhoods and even large countries. Apparently, the list of their services remains the same, covering routine with holy vibes. People tend to gather to celebrate with others in monastic places consisting of buildings, statues, and ritual spaces as the social centers of any community.
Interreligious Dialogue between Christians and Buddhists
In fact, one may easily think that mission is a religious trip that is organized to convert new people to a certain religion. As far as medieval missions are concerned, it seems to be true. However, modern missions serve as a source of intercultural and interreligious dialogue between the representatives of different nations. Ott et al. (2010) ask in their book whether there is an opportunity to make this communication be not only successful but also remain a conversation between equals. It turns out that people belonging to different religions are not always ready to be open-minded enough to sit in front of people, not sharing their views and believes due to profound traditionalism. Evidently, dialogue may turn into a conflict or desperate attempts to convince others in one’s viewpoint.
In this case, it seems to be sensible to strive for balance by not disapproving others’ convictions and, at the same time, not abandoning one’s own ideas on religion. Tennent (2002) draws the same conclusion in his book devoted to the theology of mission. According to the author, excessive tolerance may even lead to misunderstanding (Tennent, 2002). The beauty of interreligious dialogue should not lie in the attempt to find similarities between different religions. It would be better to strive for an open conversation, including polite disputes. By trying to avoid cultural peculiarities, one is sure to fail and lose mutual understanding.
Apparently, there should be rules on how to lead the interreligious dialogue. As far as nontheistic religions such as Buddhism are concerned, there should be special attention paid to the question of whether the existence of divines is to be discussed. According to recent studies, “the first requirement is that a person involved in interreligious dialogue must have no ulterior motives (Muck, 2011). To carry on a discussion in order to convert people to one’s religion serves as an illustration of an ulterior motive. In this case, there is no room for conversation between equals. It would be better for a Christian to get rid of Christocentric views not to turn the dialogue into a monologue.
The same concerns earnest Buddhists ready to stand up for their perception of the Western world as chaotic and full of lures. Moreover, there is no use in drawing parallels between the doctrines and practices of both religions for the sake of evangelizing Buddhists. It may drastically undermine the integrity of Christian and Buddhist traditions. Finally, an efficient missioner is expected to be polite and tolerant towards others. This is the key principle of how a Christian and a Buddhist should better cooperate on a mission. Still, it never means to tolerate rudeness and attempts to belittle the value of Christianity or Buddhism. Offenders or abrupt speakers may disgrace the noble motives of any mission. If a missioner possesses a flying temper, they can easily hold it by use of mantras or daily prayers.
In conclusion, one should possess mountain knowledge of religion before taking up a role of a missioner. Buddhism usually sparks disputes among people because it resembles a philosophical doctrine at first sight. Meanwhile, it is definitely a religion, to be more precise, a nontheistic one. Therefore, it deserves respect as any other religion. One should never forget that there are many similar points between Christianity and Buddhism, but the differences are likely to outweigh them. Consequently, an intercultural and interreligious dialogue between Christians and Buddhists is a peculiar area for missions. That is why specific rules of communication should be developed and strictly followed. Among them, politeness ranks highly because there is no dialogue between equals without respect.
Farhadian, C. E. (2015). Introducing world religions: A Christian engagement. Baker Academic.
Muck, T. C. (2011). Interreligious dialogue: Conversations that enable Christian witness. International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 35 (4), 187-192. Web.
Ott, C., Strauss, S. J., & Tennent, T. C. (2010). Encountering theology of mission (encountering mission): Biblical foundations, historical developments, and contemporary issues. Baker Books.
Tennent, T. C. (2002). Christianity at the religious roundtable: Evangelicalism in conversation with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Baker Academic.