A Buddhist friend in Australia asked for my help in buying a used car. He was frustrated after several unsuccessful attempts, disappointed and baffled by the experience; after all, he had done nothing particularly bad in his life. For a Buddhist, the law of karma means that bad deeds result in bad consequences, so why him?

More than 400,000 Buddhists live in Australia, more than 2% of our population, so for Christians to be able to appropriately relate to them, we should know what they believe.

Buddhism is a complex faith with a number of different schools.

The Theravada school is little changed since the Buddha’s teachings.

The Mahayana school is considered more accessible to ordinary people. Its key elements are wisdom and compassion.

The Vajrayana or Tibetan school is highly ritualistic.

There are, however, common key beliefs and ideas.

Buddhism is atheistic. The Buddha did not believe in a god.

Buddhism is about self-effort. Modern-day Buddhists will sometimes say that all that happens in life is entirely up to oneself.

Buddhism involves karma and rebirths. Karma is the connection between actions and the resultant forces. The effects of karma can span more than one lifetime, with re-births occurring over and over. Only when all karmic forces are extinguished can one enter Nirvana (‘enlightenment’).

Buddhism is a response to suffering and to life in general. Its ‘Four Noble Truths’ are:

  • To live means to suffer
  • The cause of suffering is attachment, which results in an endless cycle of rebirths
  • The way to end suffering is through the unmaking of sensual craving and attachment
  • The path to the end of suffering involves having a right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Buddhists have no single canon like the Bible.

Five commands of the Buddha are commonly observed today: do not kill, do not lie, do not steal, do not commit sexual immorality and do not use addictive substances.

How does this work out in practice?

Many Buddhists are pacifists who will also try to avoid killing any living thing. Since the 6th century BC, various layers, including local beliefs, have been added to the original concepts of Buddhism, so that Buddhism may have distinctive local characteristics. While Buddhists in Australia may not understand all the basics of the faith, their thoughts and actions may be heavily influenced by them. My friend’s interpretation of his frustrating car-buying experience is a case in point.

How should we engage with Buddhists here in Australia?

Show respect and love. Many Buddhists are seeking to find a way through life.

Pray and be well prepared through research and training.

Define terms clearly. Using parables, symbols and analogies can prove helpful.

Don’t expect Christianity to be attractive to Buddhists who sometimes see Christianity as hypocritical or unscientific.

Focus on Jesus and what he has done for you. Share the wonderful truth that our sins can be forgiven because of what Jesus has done, and that having him as your Lord has helped you to deal with your own wrong and self-centred desires. He is the attractive one, who is the way, the truth and the life.

Ask thought-provoking questions, with gentleness and respect. Are you satisfied with life? Can one manage to keep the five Commands of Buddha? Could Jesus be the way that the Buddha talked about?

Be mindful of the social cost for Buddhists to become Christians. Most will have family who will feel rejected. Because Buddhism is often intrinsically linked to nationality, an enquirer may also ask, “Won’t I be betraying my country if I follow Jesus?”

The author is the founder of CultureConnect, Interserve Australia’s ministry amongst people of other faiths here in Australia. He and his wife lived in Buddhist countries for more than 13 years.

Some helpful reading:
The Spirit of Buddhism: A Christian Perspective on Buddhist Thought by David Burnett
From Buddha to Jesus: An Insider’s View of Buddhism and Christianity by Steve Cioccolanti