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Speaking about Jesus to Buddhist friends

The main religion in Cambodia is Buddhism. However, there is a significant difference between Buddhism as it is taught, and Buddhism as it is practised. Being alert to those differences provides good opportunities to speak about the gospel, as CMS missionary Wim Prins, based in Cambodia with Maaike, explains. 

While pure Theravada Buddhism promotes a cold, atheistic, spirit-less worldview, the common people and even Cambodian monks teach a folk-religion that reflects an optimistic outlook with a ‘spirit-filled’ worldview, including ancestral spirits, gods and angels—‘feathers and all,’ as Martin Luther would say. 

This is a tremendous opportunity for us gospel workers, because this folk-Buddhism (unlike hardline Theravada Buddhism) offers many, many gospel bridges and shared values. When talking to the Cambodian Khmer—and even more so tribal people who adhere to primal religions—I often imagine their life setting is more like that of Israel in OT times, rather than our western context. 

Effective gospel conversations 

In part because of this distinction, sharing our faith is much easier when I talk to our house help than it is when I visit monks. And even among monks there is a huge variety. Sinayt, who is now a Buddhist abbot, is neither open nor easy to reach. For example, when you ask him whether common Buddhists are afraid of death, he’ll give you the standard Theravada answer: ‘of course not!’ When you ask common Buddhists, they reply: ‘of course!’ So, in conversations I feel that Sinayt gives formal answers defending the doctrine, and I make little progress. 

Starting with reality, not theory 

So, when evangelising, rather than starting with the Buddha’s life-denying and ‘sterile’ teachings, I have found it fruitful to start where they’re at: their life-affirming folk worldview. These conversations tend to scratch where it itches. 

Friendship, not lecturing or criticising 

Likewise, friendship evangelism is more productive than ‘lecturing’ them with what I think. Positive witness—that is, talking positively about the gospel and leaving people to draw conclusions about Buddhism—is more effective than criticising doctrines and practices, or pointing out inconsistencies and unlivability. The latter would easily cause them to lose face, which is alienating in a shame/honour culture. 

Curiosity, and offering gospel hope 

I often focus on asking my Buddhist monk friend about the paraphernalia of folk-religion that I observe around his temple, the ceremonies the abbot performs, and his travels round the country. These—as well as his photos—are more likely to bring to the surface his joys and struggles, hopes and fears, plans and aspirations. In the more personal conversations, there is opportunity to mention common ground, Bible verses, and Jesus. Occasionally I can show him his lostness and deep need for a gospel of grace and hope. Time and again I stand in awe of the power and truth of the gospel, also in the folk-Buddhist world. Please pray that our Lord would give them eyes to see it! 

But common monks (as opposed to senior leaders, who may be more hardline) are often much more willing to tell about their emotional struggles, fears and hardships. I have therefore built a deeper friendship with Keng Long, who recently left the monkhood. His English is very good, and we have e-mail contact. All of this helps to communicate regularly at a deeper level. We have had our most open conversations when he did not feel watched by other monks. 

Monks who turn to Christ 

While low-key evangelism among monks is sensitive, hard and a matter of long-term friendships, some leave the monkhood and turn to Christ—how amazing that our Lord Jesus has sheep in Buddhist monasteries whom He must bring also, and who will listen to His voice! (John 10:16) 

Pray

Pray that God would open doors of gospel opportunity amongst Cambodian Buddhists, and that we also might share gospel hope with Buddhists closer to home.