Monday, June 30, 2008

Peoples of the Buddhist World

by Paul Hattaway, Piquant Editions,
Carlisle, 2004.

Reviewed by Allen Carr


Some Western drug companies spend millions of dollars developing and
marketing a new drug only to have the health authorities later
discover that it has dangerous side-effects and then ban it. Needing
to recover their investment and unable to sell their drug in the West
some of these companies try to market their dangerous products in the
Third World where public awareness of health issues is low and
indifferent governments can be brought off. Some might say that
Christianity is a bit like this.

Having lost much of their following in the West, churches are now
beginning to look for opportunities elsewhere. Of course the Islamic
world is out of the question. Even the most optimistic evangelist
knows that the chance of spreading the Gospel amongst Muslims is nil.
The obvious targets are Africa, India and the Buddhist countries of
Asia. There are now several evangelical organizations dedicated just
to evangelizing Buddhists. The Asia Pacific Institute of Buddhist
Studies in the Philippines offers missionaries in-depth courses in
Buddhist doctrine, the languages of Buddhist countries and the
sociology of various Buddhist communities – the better to know the

The Central Asia Fellowship is geared specifically to spreading the
Gospel amongst Tibetans. The Overseas Missionary Fellowship is 'an
acknowledged authority on Buddhism' and 'is available to conduct
training sessions and seminars, give presentations and speak on how
Christians can work effectively in the Buddhist world.' The Sonrise
Centre for Buddhist Studies and the South Asia Network are both
on-line communities providing missionaries with detailed, accurate and
up-to-date information useful for evangelizing Buddhists. Make no
mistake, these are not small ad-hock groups. They are large,
well-financed, superbly run organizations staffed by highly motivated
and totally dedicated people and they are in it for the long haul.

A book called Peoples of the Buddhist World has recently been
published by one of the leaders of this new evangelical assault on
Buddhism. The book's 453 pages offer missionaries and interested
Christians a complete profile of 316 Buddhist ethnic and linguistic
groups in Asia, from the Nyenpa of central Bhutan to the Kui of
northern Cambodia, from the Buriats of the Russian Far East to the
Sinhalese of Sri Lanka.

There is a detailed breakdown of the size of each group, how many call
themselves Buddhists and how many actually know and practice it, which
languages they speak, their strengths and how to overcome them, their
weaknesses and how to take advantage of them, an overview of their
history, their culture and the best ways to evangelize them.

The book is filled with fascinating and beautiful color photos of all
of these peoples, many of them little-known. It makes one very sad to
think that these gentle, smiling, innocent folk are in now in the
sights of worldly-wise missionaries determined to undermine their
faith and destroy their ancient cultures. However, Hattaway book is
also interesting for the lurid glimpse it gives into the bizarre
mentality and the equally bizarre theology of the evangelical
Christians. In the preface Hattaway asks, "Does it break God's heart
today that hundreds of millions of Buddhists are marching to hell with
little or no gospel witness? Does it break the Savior's heart that
millions worship lifeless idols instead of the true, glorious Heavenly

No wonder the evangelicals are always so angry and defensive, so
self-conscious and full of nervous energy. Every day they live with
the contradictory belief that their God is full of love and yet throws
people into eternal hell-fire, even people who have never heard of
him. That must be a real strain. Like a man who has to continually
pump air into a leaking balloon to keep it inflated, they have to keep
insisting that Buddhism is just an empty worthless idolatry when they
know very well that this is not true. That must be a real strain too.
Throughout his book Hattaway repeats all the old lies, slanders and
half-truths that missionaries peddled in the 19th century but which
mainline Christians gave up on a hundred years ago.

Hattaway claims that Buddhists, like other non-Christians, are leading
empty meaningless lives and are actually just waiting to hear the
Gospel of Jesus Christ. Not surprisingly, the statistics he presents
to his readers do not always bare this out. He shows that some
Buddhist groups have been subjected to quite intense evangelization
for years and yet have chosen to keep their faith. For example 32% of
Kyerung of Nepal have heard the Gospel but 'few have understood the
heart of the message.' Hattaway tells us that 'the American Baptists
worked in the Tovyan area (of Burma) for many decades, but most of the
converts they made were among the Karen people. They found the Tovyan
people 'slow to respond to the gospel – a pattern that continues to
this day.' Dedicated and self-sacrificing missionaries have labored in
Thailand for over 140 years but have made only miniscule numbers of
converts. According to Hattaway there are 2000 foreign missionaries
operating in Chiangmai - more than the actual number of Christians in
the city.

It is hearting to know that amongst evangelicals Thailand has been
dubbed 'the graveyard of missionaries.' Twenty one percent of Lao Ga
people have been evangelized but 'Christianity has yet to make any
impact on this people group.' Forty two percent of the Lemo have been
told about Jesus but their 'strong belief in Buddhism and their
isolated cultural mindset have prevented them from accepting the
Gospel.' Of course Hattaway's 'isolated cultural mindset' prevents him
from even considering that these people might have decided not to
become Christians because Buddhism gives them the emotional,
intellectual and spiritual sustenance they need. So he has to explain
why so many Buddhists remain what he calls 'resistant peoples' some
other way. To him it is because of fear (p.217), intellectual laziness
(p.149), greed and blindness (p.172) and or course 'demonic
opposition' (p.190). Another cause is delusion, as for example amongst
the Palaung of northern Burma, who are so completely deluded that
'they believe they have the truth in Buddhism'(p.217).

Of course, Hattaway is also crafty enough to know that the stability
and cultural integrity of traditional Buddhist societies is a major
hindrance to their evangelization. Civil wars such as in Sri Lanka and
Cambodia are literally a god-send for the missionaries. Hatthaway
calls the disruption and displacement of the Loba people of Nepal by
several huge floods 'a God-given opportunity' (p.168). Like blowflies
to a dying animal evangelical missionaries swarm around communities in
need so they can win converts while disguising their efforts as 'aid
work' and 'humanitarian relief.'

Unfortunately, many genuine and decent Christians in the West, unaware
of this hidden agenda, give money to World Vision and similar
organizations that use aid as a conversion technique. But while many
Buddhists have rejected the missionaries' message others have
succumbed to it. Thirty one percent of the Tamangs of Nepal have now
become Christians. The first missionaries arrived in Mongolia in 1990
and within a few years they had made thousands of converts, mainly
among the young. This phenomenal growth has now slowed considerably
but the number of evangelical agencies operating within the country
has grown enormously and there are still almost no books on Buddhism
in Mongolian.

In China today Christianity is growing so fast that they can hardly
build the churches quick enough to hold all the new converts. The
gentle hill tribes people of Thailand and Laos are falling prey to the
missionaries one by one. These and the numerous other successes are
not just because the missionaries have been so unscrupulous and
persistent but because Buddhists have been so indifferent, so slow to
see the danger and even more slow to respond to it in any effective

In Thailand millions are spent on glittering ceremonies, huge Buddha
statues and gold leaf for covering stupas but almost nothing on
Buddhist literature, religious education and social services for the
hill tribes. Another 'God-given opportunity' for the missionaries is
the general lackadaisical attitude within the much of the Sangha. In
one of the most revealing (about the mentality of both missionaries
and the bhikkhus) and troubling parts of this book is Bryan Lurry's
account of the four months he stayed in a monastery in the Shan states
in north-eastern Burma. He was there to assess the prospects of
converting Buddhist bhikkhus and he went away full of optimism. I fear
that his optimism was not entirely misplaced. The abbot where Lurry
stayed allowed him to teach the bhikkhus English (using the Bible as a
text of course), show a film on the life of Christ and later even
conduct regular Bible classes for the bhikkhus. Uninformed Western
Buddhists might laud this as yet another example of Buddhist
tolerance, albeit misplaced tolerance. I suspect that it was actually
due to ignorance and to that indifference to everything that does not
rock the boat or contravene traditional patterns of behavior that is
so prevalent in much of the Sangha.

As a part of his strategy to understand their thinking, Lurry asked
his 'friends' a series of questions. To the question 'What is the most
difficult Buddhist teaching to follow?' some bhikkhus answered not
eating after noon, not being able to drink alcohol and one said to
attain nirvana. To the question 'If you could change one thing about
yourself what would it be?' The replies included to be stronger,
taller, to change the shape of the nose and to have more pale skin.
When asked why they had joined the monastery not one of the bhikkhus
mentioned an interest in the Dhamma, in meditation or in the religious
life in general. As is usual in much of the Buddhist world they had
probably ordained simply because it is the tradition to do so. When
Lurry asked the bhikkhus if they would ever disrobe for any reason 'my
students expressed their desire to leave the temple in order to be
soldiers in the Shan Independence army...They did not see a
contradiction in
the fact that, as monks, they are literally not supposed to kill a
mosquito, much less another human being.' Lurry admits that he was
really surprised that so few of the replies he got suggested any deep
knowledge of Buddhism or an apparent genuine religiosity.

Having lived in Thai monasteries for eight years I am sad to say that
none of the bhikkhus' replies surprised me in the least. All too often
today the Buddhist monastic life consists of little more than rote
learning, unthinking acceptance of traditional beliefs, an endless
round of mind-numbing rituals, going to danas and having long naps.
Fortunately, many Buddhist communities are holding out against
missionary efforts but with poor religious education and little
leadership from a sedate Sangha how long will they continue to be able
to continue to do so? Something has to be done and it has to be done

Another old missionary calumny repeated throughout Hattaway's book is
that Buddhists live in constant terror of devils and demons. This
accusation is rather amusing coming from the evangelical Christians
who see almost everything they don't like as the machinations of Satan
and his minions. Lurry says of his experience, 'I must admit that the
temples intimidated me. I saw many items that discouraged me from
entering. At some temples, fierce-looking statues of creatures with
long fangs and sharp claws guard the entrance. Guarding the main hall
of many temples are two large statues of dragons with multiple heads
on either side of the staircase...If such images were on the outside
of the temple, what would I find on the inside? I half imagined that
these creatures would somehow come to life and attempt to harm me'

I can understand how simple, often illiterate hill tribesmen in the
backblocks of Burma could be frightened of malevolent spirits. But Mr.
Lurry is a graduate of the University of North Texas and he is
frightened of bits of painted cement and plaster used to decorate
Buddhist temples. How easy it is to scare evangelical Christians!

Nine pages in Peoples of the Buddhist World are devoted to the
Sinhalese, the native people of Sri Lanka, long a target of missionary
endeavors. Despite nearly 500 years of close contact with Christianity
only 4% of Sinhalese are Christian and this is despite periods when
their religion was severely disadvantaged and even actively
persecuted. It both perplexes and infuriates the evangelists that they
have had so little success in this staunchly Buddhist island.

Since the late 1950's the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has tacitly
accepted its minority status and for the most part adapted a live and
let live attitude towards Buddhism. It has continued its conversion
efforts but in a low-key and respectful way. But starting in the
1990's evangelical organizations have literally swamped Sri Lanka and
they have a 'no quarter asked for, none given' attitude. So far most
of their converts have been amongst Catholics, to the consternation of
the Catholic Church, but of course the real target is the Buddhists.
Buddhist bhikkhus are calling on the government to enact laws against
conversion. But is this really the best solution?

It is quite understandable that the Sinhalese do not like their
religion being referred to as 'Satanic devil worship' especially by
foreigners, which is what most of the missionaries in the country are.
Some years ago a deeply respected Sinhalese bhikkhu died and there was
a veritable outpouring of grief among the Buddhist public. At the very
time of this bhikkhu's funeral the leader of a house church in an
outer suburb of Colombo, let off fireworks, the usual way people
express delight or celebration in Sri Lanka. Naturally, the Buddhists
around this church were deeply offended and although no violence
occurred some very angry words were exchanged. I happened to witness
the locals' confrontation with this church leader. He insisted that
his crackers had nothing to do with the bhikkhu's funeral but was
unable to give a convincing reason why he had ignited them. Throughout
his encounter with his neighbors he was brazen, unapologetic about his
actions and
dismissive of the peoples' hurt feelings. I can only say that he gave
me the distinct impression that he would have welcomed being
manhandled or beaten so that he could claim for himself the title that
evangelicals so long to have – that of martyr for their Lord.

Hattaway's book highlights incidents of violence against Christians in
Sri Lanka and elsewhere which have unfortunately started to become all
too common. Of course, what he fails to mention is that it is only the
evangelicals, not Catholics or mainline Christians, who attract such
negative reactions. And of course he fails to mention why people
sometimes get so angry at the evangelicals. The fact is that it is
their bad-mannered pushiness and their complete insensitivity to the
religious feelings of others that is the cause of such violence. This
is not to excuse the violence but only to explain why it happens.

It is also true that some of the more extreme evangelists even
sometimes deliberately provoke confrontations. I have two evangelical
tracts from Sri Lanka – one insists that villages must become 'a
battlefield for souls' and the other says that Christians must
'confront the unsaved, yes even forcibly confront them, and compel
them to make a decision.' And it is not just Buddhists who are
offended by the evangelicals' rude aggressive behavior. A Chinese Thai
born-again Christian once informed me that the Pope is actually 'the
prostitute of the Anti-Christ' and showed me the Bible passage that
proved it. I could only laugh at his half-baked hermeneutics. But how
would a devout Catholic have felt being told such a thing?

The section on Sri Lanka in Hattaway's book is written by Tilak
Rupasinghe and Vijaya Karunaratna, two well-known evangelical
preachers. They gleefully highlight Sri Lanka's many woes – civil war,
high suicide rate, corruption, insurrection – and of course present
this as just more evidence that Buddhism is false. Then they make the
bold claim, 'In Christ there can be healing from the wounds of
injustice, oppression and ethnic hatred...In Christ there can be hope
for the redemption of the nation, its land, its language, its culture
and its people.' This is a seductive promise and one that some people
might be willing to listen to. But of course it is the same old
spurious and empty promise missionaries have always made in the lands
they try to evangelize; 'What a mess your country is in! Your gods
have failed. Accept Jesus Christ and everything will be wonderful.'

But does Christianity really do a better job of solving social
problems? The evidence that it does is very thin. Christianity failed
miserably to bring peace to northern Ireland, in fact, it was the main
cause of the problem. Germany's long tradition of Catholicism and
Protestantism did not prevent Nazism taking root there. South Africa's
Dutch Reformed Church was an ardent supporter of apartheid and all its
oppression and cruelty. The prevalence of evangelical Christianity in
the southern United States, the so-called 'Bible Belt,' has not
prevented it being the poorest and most raciest part of that country.
And the racial segregation in the south is never more obvious than on
Sunday morning when black and white people still go to separate
churches; 'Hallelujha and praise the Lord but worship him in your own

Hattaway's book is or at least should be a wake-up call for we
Buddhists. Unless we reform the Sangha, better organize ourselves and
make more of an effort to both know and apply our religion the Light
of Asia may be snuffed out.

1 comment:

Freddie said...

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