Buddhism-the religion of renunciation and "the middle way"-is self-confident and robust in an America increasingly looking for "enlightenment" and intrigued by the enigmatic smile of the Buddha.
Fueled by both a surge in Asian immigration in the past 30 years and celebrity endorsements from the rich and famous (singer Tina Turner, actor Richard Gere, Italian soccer star Baggio, the peripatetic Nobel Prize-winning Dalai Lama, and Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson), this worldwide religion of 565 million has successfully transplanted itself into the United States.
In an attempt to discover the religion's appeal to growing numbers of Americans, Terry Muck, associate professor of comparative religion at Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas, interviewed Americans who had converted. "The most common response I got was that it offered them a peace and contentment through the meditative technique," says Muck, author of "Those Other Religions in Your Neighborhood." "The idea seemed to be that American culture is so hectic and busy and stressful, and the various kinds of Buddhist meditation techniques [are] an antidote they hadn't found in … the Christianity that they had grown up with."
James Stephens, a former Buddhist who launched the evangelical Sonrise Center for Buddhist Studies in Sierra Madre, California, six years ago to develop information and training to evangelize Buddhists, estimates there are 2 million in this country. Other research says there are only 558,000 active Buddhists in North America.
Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard University, says there are 1,500 Buddhist centers in the United States. The 102,000-square-foot, $25 million Hsi Lai ("Coming to the West") Temple in Hacienda Heights, California, is the largest Buddhist structure in the Western Hemisphere.
Such figures only begin to tell the story, however. Recent films, such as What's Love Got to Do with It? based on the life of Tina Turner, and The Little Buddha with Keanu Reeves, present Buddhism attractively to a culture groping for spiritual understanding. Buddhism also benefits from the popularity of the New Age movement and Hinduism, which Stephens says are closely related to it. "People are looking for answers," says Stephens, who was a Nichiren Shoshu (Soka Gakkai) Buddhist for 14 years before his conversion to Christianity. "[People] are looking for a theology of suffering. They're looking for meaning to their lives."
American Buddhists have used their wealth to finance Buddhist activities and construction projects both here and in Asia. "Their influence is very powerful," Stephens says. "Buddhists look at America as a mission field, as a prime mission field."
GAPING EVANGELISM HOLE
While many in the West turn to the East for spiritual guidance, few American Christians have taken on the challenge of Buddhism, either here or overseas. Before he decided to start the Sonrise Center, Stephens discovered a "gaping hole in the efforts to evangelize Buddhist peoples." Contrasting the comparatively high interest in other religions, such as Islam, Stephens notes, "There's not anything from an evangelical point of view, or a historically Christian accurate point of view, which addresses the Buddhist faith and those who are lost in the darkness of Buddhism."
One reason for this neglect is because Buddhism, founded by Siddhartha Gautama, a sixth-century B.C. prince from India, is fundamentally different from the Judeo-Christian world-view. Buddhism asserts that all is emptiness, illusion, and that the desire to "have" is what brings pain. Buddha taught that suffering comes from ignorance. The religion holds to endless cycles of reincarnation, which can only be broken when one becomes enlightened.
For the Buddhist, "salvation" means extinction, release from the wearisome cycle of birth and rebirth. This "nirvana" is attained through following the eightfold path: right views, goals, speech, conduct, lifestyle, efforts, awareness, and concentration.
There are three main schools: Theravada ("the Doctrine of the Elders," adhered to by 38 percent of all Buddhists), the form closest to that taught by Gautama Buddha; Mahayana ("the Great Vehicle," 56 percent), which has allowed the most innovations and adaptations in Buddhist doctrines; and Tantrism or Vajranaya ("the Diamond Vehicle"), also known as Tibetan Buddhism, which adds elements of Hinduism and the occult (6 percent).
The adaptability of Buddhism is one of its greatest strengths. "Buddhism is a very flexible philosophy," Stephens says. "Because of its doctrine of assimilation, it easily [changes] itself, much like a chameleon, to other religious forms. You can be a 'Christian' practicing Buddhist because [adherents say] 'Buddhism is just a philosophy.' " With a common interest in techniques such as meditation, psychology is another arena in which Buddhism has made itself at home.
"Some of the ideas that Buddhism espouses have already had something of an impact on our culture in more of an indirect way," Muck says. "I think it's largely in the area of 'finding oneself ' on a spiritual path through meditative techniques, slowly becoming more and more purified. That dovetails very well with the American preoccupation with self-help psychology. To some extent, Buddhism has tapped into that cultural predisposition and injected religious meaning into it for some people."
Another plus in the American mind is that Buddhism can give one a feeling of spirituality without demanding a lot in return. Citing the "clear rules and guidance" of his former belief system (the Nichiren Shoshu sect), Stephens says, "The whole system is very well oiled, and so people see that and say, 'Oh, here's something that I can do. It doesn't have too many moral, ethical codes that I have to follow and sets of rules. So I can do something that doesn't cramp my style.' "
Adding to Buddhism's current appeal is the visibility of the Dalai Lama, the telegenic "god-king" of Tibetan Buddhism. Pointing to the continuing worldwide concern about the persecution of the Tibetan people by China, Stephens notes, the Dalai Lama has been aided by public relations know-how. "He talks about following 'a religion of kindness.' He doesn't say, 'I follow the religion of Tibetan Buddhism.' Well, who doesn't want to practice kindness?"
IN BUDDHA'S BACK YARD
Stephen Hishey is a citizen of India who used to be a Tibetan Buddhist. Today, with the help of FEBA Radio in the Seychelles northeast of Madagascar, he produces Gaweylon (Good News), a daily, half-hour Christian radio program geared to the millions of Tibetan Buddhists in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and India. Hishey says there are around 75,000 listeners to Gaweylon, and many are open to the gospel. He tells of a letter from a single monastery in India. It has 200 signatures beneath the words, "We are behind you. We are listening."
But he makes clear that winning Tibetan Buddhists to Christ involves prayer first and foremost. "There's a tremendous amount of spiritual warfare that is involved in Tibetan religion," Hishey says. "This is basically shamanism and occultism. To go with a so-called plan or strategy is not enough."
Stephens, who says he lost all his Buddhist friends when he converted, believes Christians must engage Buddhists in true friendship evangelism. "We must see our fellow travelers on planet Earth as our Lord Jesus Christ sees them … made in the image of God."
Copyright © 1994 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.