Siddhartha Gautama was born in 560 BC in Lumbini India into the Kshatriya (second highest) caste. Scholars now say he most likely was born in 400 BC.
Siddhartha’s mother had a dream, and 64 Hindu priests interpreted the dream. They said he would become the greatest ruler ever if he stayed in his palace, or he would become a great spiritual teacher if he left his palace. The latter would happen if he saw a sick man, an old man, a dead body, and a monk. To prevent his son from becoming a spiritual leader, Siddhartha’s father built a high wall around the palace and never allowed his son to leave.
Upon coming out of his mother’s womb, Siddhartha immediately stood, walked seven paces, scanned in all directions, and said in a noble voice that he was the foremost being in the world, and that this would be his last rebirth.
Siddhartha’s father gave him all the wealth and pleasures anyone would ever want. Siddhartha later married Yasodhara, and she became pregnant with his child.
At age 29, he wanted to see the outside world, so his father cleaned up the city for him. On four different trips, he saw the four things prophesied. Afterwards, Siddhartha abandoned his wife and son Rāhula (“fetter”) to discover the secret to life.
He shaved his head and wandered around in an orange robe and renounced the world. He studied under Brahmins and eventually rejected the Hindu scriptures. He tried a life of self-denial for six years and found no answers.
At age 35, he sat under a fig tree for forty days, and at sunrise his mind was opened up, and the universe poured its knowledge into his mind. The knowledge was the Four Noble Truths that had been forgotten by humanity.
He became known as Buddha, “the enlightened or awakened one.” He began to teach the way to salvation and founded an order of monks called Sangha. The Buddha called the religion he founded Dhamma-vinaya (“the doctrine and discipline.”)
He rejected the caste system of Hinduism and accepted all people into his order, including women and the poor. Buddha emphasized compassion for all people regardless of their position in life.
Buddha spent the remained of his life moving traveling throughout India teaching on the four noble truths and expounding the Dharma. Buddha died at the age of 80 from food poisoning.
After the Buddha’s death, Buddhism began to spread rapidly from the Ganges Valley. But they also began to split into many different schools of thought. Monks would shave their heads, wear orange robes, and evangelize in pairs. They were known for their acceptance of all people and compassion and politeness.
During the reign of the Emperor Aśoka (273-232 BC) of the Mauryan empire, which covered all of India, Buddhism gained royal support and began to spread more widely, reaching most of India and into Sri Lanka. During the Indian Kushan empire (30-375 AD), Buddhism began to spread throughout Asia. By the 600s AD, Buddhism had become the dominant belief in China, Japan, and Tibet.
Today there are between 360 and 500 million followers of Buddhism worldwide and over a million American Buddhists. It is considered the world’s fourth-largest religion.
The Tripitaka (“The Three Baskets”) is authoritative and sacred. It is divided into three sections and contains 50 volumes (11 times larger than the Bible).
Neither Buddha nor anyone around him wrote anything down. The Tripitaka is based on oral traditions written down between 200 BC and 200 AD, 200–400 years after his death.
There is no historical evidence for their accuracy. Even Buddhist scholars believe that the Buddhist writings have been influenced by mythological embellishments.
Beliefs About God
The existence of God is totally irrelevant and unnecessary.
Buddha rejected the indifferent gods of Hinduism.
Buddhism today totally rejects the idea of God and judgment in the afterlife.
When the people of Buddha’s day asked him if he was a god, an angel, or saint, he said, “No.” When they asked him what he was, he said, “I am awake.”
Beliefs About the Material Realm
Buddha rejected Hinduism’s idea of maya (“illusion”) and taught that the material realm was real.
The world was not created by a god. The origin of the world is irrelevant.
The world operates by natural power and law, not a divine command. Everything that happens is the result of cause and effect.
Everything in creation is impermanence, suffering, and uncertainty, which is called tilakhana.
Beliefs About Humanity
Buddha rejected the idea of humans having an atman (“spiritual inner self or soul”). This is the doctrine of anatta (“no-soul”).
Humans are neither gods nor a part of god.
Humans are merely material beings and a part of the material realm.
Human existence is nothing more than a composite of five groups (khandas).
- Rupa—physical forms
- Vedana—feelings or sensations
- Sankhara—mental formations or dispositions
These khandas come together at birth to form a human person.
A person is a “self” in that they are a true subject of moral action and karmic accumulation.
Beliefs About the Problem with the World and Humanity
Life is suffering, and happiness is an illusion. Any happiness one is experiencing in the moment is merely distracting them from the deeper suffering they are experiencing by the mere fact that they are living in a world of pain and suffering. Once the moment of happiness has passed, they will return to the reality of the pain and suffering in their life.
Humanity is trapped in samsara (the prison of reincarnation that brings one back into this life of suffering), which must be escaped. Humans are ignorant of how to escape the material realm of suffering.
Beliefs About the Solution to the Problem
Buddha emphasized dharma (“cosmic law and order”) and karma (“action” or “deed”) as the way to escape samsara. Buddha’s teachings on dharma were rooted in his fundamental principles, the Four Noble Truths:
- Suffering is universal, and happiness is an illusion.
- The cause of suffering is craving (desire). It leads to frustration and bad karma.
- The cure for suffering is overcoming ignorance and eliminating cravings.
- One suppresses cravings by following the Middle Way (the life between luxury and poverty) to nirvana.
Buddha claimed that his mission was to help one escape samsara, not to explain what one would find after nirvana. The afterlife is non-existence. You are the only one who can save yourself.
“Everybody, every human being wants happiness, and Buddha, he acts like teacher. You are your own master. Future, everything depends on your own shoulder. Buddha’s responsibility is just to show the path, that’s all.” —The Dalai Lama
The Eightfold Path is how one eliminates desires, which then leads to enlightenment.
- Right understanding: Believe in the Four Noble Truths.
- Right aspiration: Renounce all desires and any thoughts like lust, bitterness, and cruelty.
- Right speech: Speak only truth and refrain from lying, slander, and arrogance.
- Right behavior: Exercise self-control and abstain from killing, stealing, and sexual immorality.
- Right occupation: Work in an occupation that benefits others and harms no one.
- Right efforts: Commit totally to the Middle Way.
- Right mindfulness: Exhibit mental self-control to eliminate all emotions.
- Right meditation: Perform meditation through yoga to obtain complete detachment.
The point of the Eightfold Path is that one must pursue ending suffering in one’s own life and in the lives of others through acts of compassion. Buddha taught that if you stop thinking about yourself, compassion will automatically arise.
Achieving this state of consciousness through the Eightfold Path is called nirvana (“blown out”), which refers to realization of non-self and emptiness, marking the end of rebirth by stilling the fires that keep the process of rebirth going.
Buddha taught that there were two different stages to nirvana. The first is sopadhishesa-nirvana (“nirvana with a remainder”), which is when one has achieved the middle way in one’s life and thus reached enlightenment. This person is truly living in the moment and is connected to the universe, neither affected by the past or desiring things for the future. They are free from desire and free to just “be.”
The second is parinirvana (“nirvana without remainder”) or anupadhishesa-nirvana (“final nirvana”), which is when one escapes samsara and ceases to exist. Buddha did not know or teach what this really entailed. It is an absorption into nothingness where one is no more. He said it was not his job to explain what happened after death, just how to get there.
“There is, disciples, a condition, where there is neither earth nor water, neither air nor light, neither limitless space, nor limitless time, neither any kind of being, neither ideation nor non-ideation, neither this world nor that world. There is neither arising nor passing away, nor dying, neither cause nor effect, neither change nor standstill.” —Siddhartha Gautama (Paul Dahlke. Buddhist Essays, p. 100.)
Beliefs About Jesus
Though Buddha did not speak on the identity or nature of Jesus, the latter Buddhist monks did, specifically the Dalai Lama in an interview with Christianity Today. Buddhists believe that when one achieves a state of enlightenment and becomes a Buddha, they can no longer do wrong or harm and can only tell the truth. Buddhists teach that Jesus was such a Buddha. The problem is that Jesus taught that He was the only true God, that only through Him can one find salvation, and that salvation is living with God, without sin, for all eternity. Buddhism rejects all of this. So, the question that Christianity Today asked was, “How can Buddhism consider Jesus a Buddha when His teachings do not line up with that of Buddhism? The Dalai Lama basically answered (see below) that it is sometimes all right for a Buddha to lie to his followers if it is for their own benefit, especially if they cannot handle deeper truths yet. Ultimately, all that matters is that Jesus lived a life of compassion; that is all that matters in Buddhism. Yet this answer contradicts the Eightfold Path, and one cannot live a life of compassion if they are deceiving others.
“In our interview, we devoted considerable time to the identity and integrity of Jesus. The Dalai Lama seemed at ease with the questioning, even while admitting that this was possibly the toughest area for exploration between evangelical Christians and Buddhists.
I reminded him of his belief that Jesus is ‘a fully enlightened being’ and asked, ‘If Jesus is fully enlightened, wouldn’t he be teaching the truth about himself? Therefore, if he is teaching the truth, then he is the Son of God, and there is a God, and Jesus is the Savior. If he is fully enlightened, he should teach the truth. If he is not teaching the truth, he is not that enlightened.’
As the Dalai Lama felt the momentum of the question, he laughed more than at any other time in the interview. He obviously understood the argument, borrowed from C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.
‘This is a very good question,’ he said. ‘This is very, very important, very important.’ Even in Buddha’s case, he said, a distinction must always be made between teachings that ‘always remain valid’ and others that ‘we have the liberty to reject.’
He argued that the Buddha knew people were not always ready for the higher truth because it ‘wouldn’t suit, wouldn’t help.’ Therefore, lesser truths are sometimes taught because of the person’s ignorance or condition. This is known in Buddhist dharma as the doctrine of uppayah, or skillful means. The Dalai Lama then applied this to the question about Jesus.
‘Jesus Christ also lived previous lives,’ he said. ‘So, you see, he reached a high state, either as a Bodhisattva, or an enlightened person, through Buddhist practice or something like that. Then, at a certain period, certain era, he appeared as a new master, and then because of circumstances, he taught certain views different from Buddhism, but he also taught the same religious values as I mentioned earlier: Be patient, tolerant, compassionate. This is, you see, the real message in order to become a better human being.’ He said that there was absolutely no lying involved since Jesus’ motivation was to help people.” (Christianity Today. June 11, 2001, Vol. 45, No. 8, p. 64.)
Branches of Buddhism
Theravada (“way of the elders”) hold strictly to the teachings of Buddha and believe only a few lifelong monks can achieve nirvana. Originally named the Hinayana (“the lesser way”).
Mahayana (“the greater way”) developed the idea of passionate devotion to Bodhisattvas (savior gods) who aid you in obtaining salvation. They emerged sometime between 150 BC and 100 AD.
Zen Buddhism de-emphasizes mere knowledge of sutras and doctrine and emphasizes self-guidance through rigorous self-control and meditation. “Look within, you are the Buddha.” Originated in China as Chan Buddhism in the 700s AD.
Buddhism has gained great popularity in the western world for several reasons.
- Buddhism offers moral guidance and direction without requiring any accountability or obligation to a god.
- Buddhism emphasizes compassion towards others without accountability to a moral standard.
- Buddhism offers peace, tranquility, and enlightenment through meditation.
The Dharmachakra represents the wheel of Dharma and the Eightfold Path. It is the spinning of samsara until one escapes through their good Dharma.
The Buddha image began to appear in India around the 200s AD.
Bodhisattvas (in Mahayana Buddhism) is a person who was able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings. One of these is Hotei, The Laughing Buddha is based on an eccentric monk who lived in the time of the Liang Dynasty (502–557 AD), and who has become associated with luck and good fortune in many Asian cultures.
Witnessing often seems scary, but try to remember you are just sharing who Jesus is to you in your life. It is important to remember that it is not your job to answer all their questions and convert them. It is your job to share who God and Jesus Christ are as you know them now at this point in your life and how they have been involved in your life.
Witnessing to Other People in General
First, pray for wisdom, pray for them, and pray for the leading of the Holy Spirit. Even if you just met them, you can still ask for God’s leading in a brief prayer.
Don’t be afraid of them or make it awkward. Remember that they are people with many of the same fears and desires that you have. They may look culturally different and sound different as they express their worldview, but at the core of their being, they are a person who wants to be loved, feel safe, and have meaning in their life. They have come to believe that the worldview they have will fulfill those needs. That is really the only thing that makes them different from you.
Second, the most important part is to love them and listen to them. Many non-Christians complain that Christians immediately share the gospel without really getting to know them. Most people do not feel like people really listen to them and get to know who they are. It is important to realize that most witnessing is the result of building a relationship with people and being involved in their life. Take the time to really listen to their desires and fear and draw them out with questions. Sometimes you will find that their beliefs are based more on childhood experiences or being hurt by other Christians than the evidence or benefits of their religion. Understand that you may be in for the long haul, and it may take many conversations and years to lead them to Christ. You may not even see them become a Christian, but God will use you as well as many others to lead them to Christ, which may happen at the influence of another Christian long after they are out of your life.
Even if you know a lot about their religion or have met a lot of people from their religion, do not assume you know what they believe. Not everyone of the same religion necessarily has the same beliefs. Ask them what they believe and why they believe what they do. Pay attention to what they emphasize or what they spend the most time talking about because that usually is the most important thing to them. That will be the most rooted belief that will be the hardest for them to shift their perspective on. Remember not everything they believe is wrong or bad. Compare it to the basic affirmations of the Christian faith, not your personal belief preferences.
Third, it is better to start with asking them questions about what they think about Christianity than telling them what it is and why it is right. You may find that many things they believe are correct. Ask them who they think God and Jesus are. What do they think is wrong with the world and how it should be fixed? Do they think they are a good person, and why? What do they think will happen to them when they die? If you can affirm them in that belief or talk about how you believe that too, then you are starting on common ground with them, which will make you less hostile and help them feel more connected to you and more comfortable to share with you. Then you can lovingly point out the differences between what they believe and what the Bible says. Frame it as Jesus being so much more rather than “this is right” or what you have to believe.
Fourth, get them to think about how their worldview corresponds to reality. Ask them in a curious and loving way, not in a debating way, about the contradictions in their belief systems. Listen for internal contradictions as they explain their beliefs. You must listen to what they are saying and ask questions. Sooner or later you catch on to inconsistencies. Inconsistencies usually arise when discussing the relationship between their beliefs and reality. In a loving way confront them on these inconsistencies in order to show them that their beliefs do not correspond with reality. You are trying to help them step outside their belief system and see it from a different perspective. Ask them to explain how they can embrace these contradictions. Ask them the questions that you have always had about their religion or the things that do not make sense to you.
Do not get distracted by the bizarre or fringe beliefs that other people have. Focus on the majors: who God is, humanity, the problem with humanity and creation, and most importantly the solution to the problem with humanity and creation. The focus should always be on who Jesus is and His work on the cross. Share with them how Jesus provides a better relationship, path, and future.
Finally, share your story with them. They may be able to argue with beliefs, but they cannot argue against your own story. Tell them about your life before Christ, how you came to know Christ, and how He changed your life. And most importantly, tell them how Christ got you through and is getting you through your struggles. Remember, people of other religions do not have a personal relationship with a being that is all powerful and can get them through anything. They are all on their own in dealing with their struggles. Your personal stories are the most powerful tool you have in witnessing to others, for this is where Jesus becomes real in the everyday lives of everyday people.
Witnessing to Buddhists
Buddhists have no concept of God, so telling them God loves them will have little meaning. And both positive and negative desire is regarded as the root of all suffering, so the idea of desiring God above all else does not appeal to them. It is still important to share that one can have a relationship with God because all humans desire relationships, but know that this should not be the immediate emphasis in your conversations since God is irrelevant to them.
For Buddhists, the best way to introduce the Christian faith is to start with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the teachings of Jesus. Help them see the superiority of the wisdom of God and then how that is connected to the teachings of Jesus, who is a relational being, and them move them into the fact that He is also the unique God of creation. Missionaries in Buddhist communities have found it helpful to first present Jesus as a wise man and the Prince of Peace, before later introducing Him as the Son of God. They have also had positive responses when they have explained that Christians too have a form of meditation – meditation on Jesus and His word. The most important thing is to love them and live out the Christian faith before them.
Questions you can ask
- What’s your spiritual background?
- Buddhism is exploding in America as a belief system. Why do you think that is?
- What are the parts of Buddhism that you are most excited about?
- Tell me what it’s like to be a Buddhist when it comes to your specific spiritual disciplines and practices.
- Why do you think there are evil and suffering in the world?
- What do you believe happens after death?
- Who or what set the law of karma in motion?
- Have you ever felt the need to be forgiven?
- How would you feel if you discovered that someone suffered in your place so that you would not have to?
- Have you ever heard of the path to inner peace apart from ridding yourself of all your desires and attachments?
- How do you know Buddha was right?
- Is there any evidence that Buddhism is true?
- How do you know you will have another life?
- If humans have no soul, what gets reincarnated?
Bowker, John. World Religions: The Great Faiths Explored & Explained. New York: DK Publishing, 2006.
Boyett, Jason. 12 Major World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity’s Most Influential Faiths. Berkeley: Zephyros Press, 2006.
Ching, Francis D. K. The Religions Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. New York: DK Publishing, 2018.
Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Molloy, Michael. Experiencing the World’s Religions: Tradition, Challenge, and Change. McGraw-Hill Humanities, 2009.