January 24, 2021

The Buddhist Next Door

The Buddhist Next Door

By James C. Stephens

Little Lisa on The Simpsons Christmas special, tired of the hypocrisy and commercialism of the Springfield church, decides to become a Tibetan Buddhist and is mentored by Richard Gere on prime-time television.

About the same time, John Altschuler, the producer and writer for King of the Hill, is given a book on the Buddha by his wife. He ends up writing a satire for an episode he nicknames, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Buddha.” In this episode, the Hills’ only child, Bobby, is recognized as an American reincarnation of the Lama Sanglug by immigrant monks, putting his father, Hank, through great angst as he unsuccessfully attempts to explain his Methodist worldview to his son. Ever so subtly, and, sometimes blatantly, Buddhism slips in uninvited to comfortable living rooms across America via mainstream media.

This influx of popular Buddhism began in 1960, when Masayasu Sadanaga (George M. Williams), a young student from Japan, stepped onto the UCLA campus with the resolve to introduce “true Buddhism” to America.

In 1970, I was swept up into the excitement of their movement to establish world peace through human revolution while studying political science on the campus of Cal State University Northridge. Thus began my 14-year journey into Buddhism, complete with many practices similar to evangelical Christianity-street witnessing, late-night discussion meetings and the singing of Buddhist sutras set to tunes such as “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”

My Buddhist worldview was challenged, however, while visiting Japan on an architecture tour. As I leaned over to put some postcards in my travel bag, someone yelled a warning at me in Japanese. Unfortunately, I didn’t speak Japanese, nor did I have time to move as a 200-pound sign blew over on my back. In shock, I was whisked away in a taxi to the hospital, suffering from a sharp blow to my spinal chord and a partially paralyzed arm. Ironically, the accident report read, “Act of God.”

While lying on several hospital beds in Japan, I struggled with troubling questions about the power of the Buddhist gods to save. After returning to the states, I joined Amway and became consistently exposed to the testimonies of Christians, and observed the importance faith played in their business and marriages. Initially, my wife and I just became more committed to becoming the first successful Buddhist distributors. Evidently, God had other plans.

The following three years were spent aggressively pursuing my business goals, while rubbing shoulders with godly friends who prayed for me, asked me convicting questions and gave me books that answered many of mine. After a month of frightening dreams, weighing the numerous prophecies of Christ with those of the Buddha and wrestling with 2 Peter 3:10 that spoke of the day of the Lord coming like a thief, I sought out a pastor who led me to Christ one hot July afternoon in 1984.

I began to thirst for more than fellowship. Weekly, I searched the church library looking for answers on issues that were of importance to me as a former Buddhist. I searched for books on Christian meditation, but found only those suggesting that Zen meditation made them better Christians. (I knew Zen from my studies and practice, and even as a new Christian saw it as incompatible with the Christian faith.)

This ideology is not confined to books alone. One friend claims that he was healed by his Zen priest’s treatments. Now at his doctor’s advice, he’s practicing Buddhist meditation at home-albeit with a twist: He uses the Lord’s prayer instead of praying to the Buddha. Although claiming to have a love of Christ, he has a very limited understanding of the theological underpinnings of his faith.

This confusion may be traced to the fact that a high percentage of evangelicals no longer believe in the exclusivity of the Christian faith. Instead, according to an August 2005 Beliefnet.com poll, “Eight in 10 Americans-including 68 percent of evangelicals-believe that more than one faith can be a path to salvation, which is most likely not what they were taught in Sunday school.”

Buddhist theology and practice is antithetical to biblical Christianity. For instance, the Buddhist objective in meditation is to empty one’s mind while seeking union with the cosmos, ultimately buying into the Serpent’s ancient lie, “You shall become as gods.”

Since we have already been saved through His grace, we don’t meditate to accumulate merit as would a Buddhist. Through contemplation, we focus our minds on His Word and His works, waiting upon Him and actively listening. Christian meditation takes discipline, but is only fruitful by the grace of God (see 2 Cor. 3:5; 9:8).

So, why do so many Christians neglect to share their faith with Buddhists? Many have willfully chosen to follow the latest popular religious fashions and put their theological mind on hold. According to research by Robert Wuthnow and Wendy Cadge published in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (September 2004), “Fifty-six percent of the American public thinks of Buddhists as tolerant, while 63 percent believe them to be peace-loving.”

In its August 2005 survey, Beliefnet.com posed the question, “Can a good person who isn’t of your religious faith go to heaven or attain salvation, or not?” Brace yourself for a shock. While 91 percent of Catholics said yes and 83 percent of non-evangelical Christians said yes, 68 percent of evangelicals said yes as well. Consider how elements of Buddhist ideology have become entwined in our thinking:

A youth pastor at a prominent evangelical church recently rose to the pulpit and gave a report on the success of their recent summer camp. He exclaimed, “It was so great, I thought I died and gone to nirvana.”

Another day, our children-keenly tuned to sniff out Buddhism’s subtle invasion into our culture-shared that their favorite history teacher who was teaching on world religions passed around a little fat Buddha statue and jokingly taught them to rub it for good luck. All this in a preppy private Christian high school in Southern California.

Another friend of mine occasionally travels to India and relayed a story about the many Pentecostals and charismatics he met there who were practicing Tibetan Buddhism. When I asked why, he said, “Most were seeking spiritual experiences, and while they loved Jesus as a teacher, they were not firmly grounded in the Scriptures and went astray as they sought the supernatural.”

We’ve also seen Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Congregationalists slide into Buddhism. One pastor of a local church joined his wife in taking vows at the local Buddhist temple-while retaining his position as senior pastor of the church.

The primary struggle for every generation that is dedicated to missions and evangelism is coming to terms with how does the true gospel get translated into mainstream culture without compromise? How do we keep our faith and maintain our moral and theological standards while still living in the midst of an increasingly pluralistic society?

When an invasive pop culture and its terminology has become the norm, and millions are spent on conveying that message through the media, one cannot passively sit back and live in a 1950s religious cocoon. Daniel and his followers in Babylon faced similar tests of their faith. We are told that the godly will be persecuted. The question is, “Will we remain faithful?”

The Cross & Lotus~


The Cross and Lotus 

A History of Christianity in a Buddhist Context 

By James Carlton Stephens 

Tempers ran high along the Silk Road for generations between merchants, mercenaries and monks, who spent weeks trekking alongside camels through the desert sands at night avoiding marauders and the blistering mid day sun. Refreshing stops at a desert Oasis for several days to a week at a time provided ample opportunity for a religious debate for these road scholars who traded social gossip as readily as silk and gold. 

At times the raging wind blew the swirling sand across the great dunes until the normal trail was no longer visible. Hamid, the experienced Bedouin trader sensing the futility of further travel erected his two room gutba effortlessly in what seemed but a moment. It was an inbred ritual of survival that generations’ had carried out. Once the tent was secured, he placed an interior light on the tent’s center pole signifying his tribe’s belief that ‘Allah is the light of the heavens and earth’ (Surah 24, Ayah 35). Kneeling towards Mecca he intently rolled out the niche carpet in the alcove of the gutba designed for Muslim prayers, bowed and thanked Allah for refuge from the storm.  The incessant pelting sand bred a drowsy rest among the remaining exhausted pilgrims. 

As early evening approached, the winds died down and the camp arose to a sweet aroma of black coffee, served as a symbol of the Bedouin belief that any guest is a guest of God.  After Hamid drank  the El Heif (first cup),  to assure the guests of its’ purity, Hamid’s guests each poured a small portion into each of their cups from the briki into the second cup, the El Keif on cue. After their meal, some stale dates were passed around the circle for dessert. Hamid was not only a capable cook, but a skillful captain on the sea of sand who had mastered the art of survival, stellar navigation and out of necessity several trade languages. It wasn’t long until, the Nestorian and Buddhist merchant were having an intense one-on-one discussion about their faith.  

“It’s just a myth, a legend. Think about it. Giant hooded snakes shielding the Prince from the rain! Ridiculous.”   

The Buddhist merchant retorted, “No. It really happened. He was alive and born in Nepal.” 

“Okay, so he lived, but where’s the historical evidence?” the Nestorian challenged. 

“It’s obvious you don’t have a clue about India’s culture and how religious teachings are passed on.  What does it matter what your books say! Your Jesus never wrote any books. He just talked like our beloved Buddha. Some of his disciples memorized many of his talks they were so brilliant,” proudly retorted the Merchant from Ladakh. 

After listening to the discourse for an hour, the dark skinned Indian merchant sitting in the shadows sarcastically said, “Why resuscitate from a well-deserved oblivion the pestilent views of the Buddha? Buddhism is but a stray dog of our high religion of Brahmanism. Buddha broke ranks and brought shame to his royal family and left his father like a spoiled goat! Now Ganesh, Krishna, and Shiva they are gods worth worshipping!” 

Hamid, recognizing his authority on the desert piped in with his own opinion, hoping to keep the debate somewhat civil. “Out in the desert, we fight the elements of wind, and sand, and the blazing sun by day and the freezing temperatures at night. I don’t much care for worshipping a carved stone of an elephant to save me from the perils of a sand storm. He skillfully turned the discussion back to the Nestorian.  “I don’t think that Jesu was crucified. In fact, his name here is Mani and he is said to have appeared and preached to many in Ladakh and Kashmir. He is a great prophet, may Allah be praised.”  

His Ahmadiyyan Muslim friend broke in, “No Hamid. Mani was a disciple of Jesu.  Jesu spent his years studying magic in our mountains and returned to the Holy Land to call his disciples. The Romans didn’t kill him. He was taken off the cross after a few hours and survived. I heard he was seen in Kashmir where he finally died after many years.” 

A Chinese merchant trading in herbal medicines, thinking about the Hindu’s attack said, “You have in your tradition many avatars. Some say Buddha was but a reincarnation of Krishna.  We believe that the Buddha was a reincarnation of our great philosopher Lao Tse. So, you see it doesn’t much matter does it? See how you argue over vain disputes that are but a vapor? What does heaven matter when we can not even get along among ourselves?” 

Hamid’s presence had a way of making itself known as he rose to his feet, the primitive fire in his eyes dancing to a different tune knowing the way of the desert’s Silk Road. “Without heaven’s stars to guide us, we would burn in the hell of the deserts’ dunes. Allah be praised. It is now time for rest. When the moon rises over the dunes, we mount our camels in the cool of the night.” Stone silence replaced the intense debate overheard by the ancient audience of stars lighting the Silk Road.