For the goal of mutual understanding and enrichment, and
also for the sake of evangelism, we need to listen to and
learn from the teachings of Buddhism.
For over a millennium, Korea has been a multi-religious nation, teeming with world religions such as Shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity. Currently, about one-third of the Korean population is Christian and one-third Buddhist. Christians’ interfaith interface with followers of other religions is both a challenge and an opportunity for Christians in Korea. Likewise, in North America, Europe, and other continents, world religions endeavor for their survival and expansion in the twenty-first century. Interfaith interface is one of the most challenging themes in global Christian movements.
Buddha was born around 560 B.C. in Kapilavastu, a borderland squeezed between India and Nepal. Buddha is not a proper name, but a title of honor meaning “the enlightened one.” His personal name was Siddhartha Gotama. Siddhartha was a prince of a small Indian kingdom. His mother, Maya, died immediately after giving birth to him. A famous fortune-teller told his father that Siddhartha would either unite all the Indian states or become a humanity-saving saint.
Suffering was clearly the Buddha’s departure point both for his truth-seeking and his teaching, and relief from suffering was its climax.6 The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths as the Way to nirvana: self-liberation from the cycle of rebirth, suffering, and ignorance. The Four Noble Truths, the essence of his teachings, concern “the nature and extent of suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation.”7
After the death of the Buddha, the highly philosophical religion flourished in India for about five centuries. Emperor Ashoka of India in the third century B.C. sent out Buddhist missionaries to many countries to spread the teachings of the Buddha. Buddhism gradually began to decline in popularity, for it mainly appealed to a certain group of people in society rather than the masses, who could not follow strict precepts of the Buddha (e.g., do not drink, do not eat meat, etc.). Before it became a minor voice in India, the religion spread to its neighboring countries, and has been expanding around the globe for the past two thousand years.
In the current backdrop of postmodern religious pluralism, in which religion A is as valid and true as religion B, Christian-Buddhist interface would be fruitless if focused only upon the religions’ similarities without examining their differences as well. Two major irreconcilable differences between Christianity and Buddhism are (1) the existence of God and (2) Jesus as the historical incarnation of God.9
Instead, I propose we start a conversation with Buddhists at the ground level (since Buddhism is a down-to-earth, existentialistic religion in essence), and that we start moving up (literally and figuratively) from there. In other words, as Kenneth Cragg, the renowned Christian scholar on Islam, suggests, we ought to start from where they start. Since suffering is an issue many Buddhists (if not all) can identify with, it is a good and safe topic to use.