Buddhist Studies Training Institute for Christian Missionaries Opens in the Philippines

Nov 19, 2002 03:00 AM EST

Baguio City, Philippines – The Asia Pacific Theological Seminary opened the world's first on-site Buddhist studies training institute for Christian missionaries and candidates. Though many seminaries offer courses in Islam, few tender official classes on Buddhism.

Alan R. Johnson who directs the new program said, "There hasn't been an annual specific focus on training people to work among those influenced by a Buddhist worldview."

The program, under the patronage of the APTS's Asia Pacific Center for the Advancement of Leadership and Missions features three-core modules and a number of electives.

The first eight-week course, which began this fall, is an introduction to the Buddhist religion and a history of Christian missions to Buddhists. The later modules will focus on placing the gospel in the Buddhist context, and on developing churches that specifically target Buddhists. Electives will study specific segments of Buddhism, such as Tibetan or Zen Buddhism.

Johnson notes that the burgeoning Christian missions movements in Asia has wrought such courses essential. "Nationals are sending hundreds of people to minister the gospel to Buddhists throughout the region," he said. "We need to provide training so they can be more effective faster."

This course is offered to students from various missions groups in the Philippines, Mongolia, Cambodia, Thailand, India, and other nations. Johnson hopes a forum for the world's leading Christian experts on Buddhists be established through the program. Leading experts such as Alex G. Smith, an Austrailian native who serves with OMF International (overseas missionary fellowship) are expected to join as speakers.

"This institute is a breakthrough pioneering venture for the Assemblies of God," said Smith, author of Buddhism Through Christian Eyes. According to Smith, two major Buddhist schools of thought exist: the conservative Theravada and the liberal Mahayana, the latter having 5 times as many followers. Branches of Mahayana Buddhism include Zen, Nichiren and Soka-gakkai.

Smith, 65, places the number of "folk Buddhists" in the world at 1 billion. These are people who aren't fully devoted to the religion and mix other cultural belief systems such as animism, shamanism or Shintoism. Although they may not be strict adherents, such folk followers often insist Buddhist rites be followed at death.

Among the 1 billion Buddhists, 700 million of them, according to Smith, are strictly devoted. Smith estimates most of eastern Asia as being Buddhist, and only 10 million of America's population as Buddhists.

"In Asia, many people are Buddhists because they are born into Buddhist families," said Johnson, an A/G missionary in Thailand since 1986. "In the West, people are drawn to it because it allows them to have spirituality without a strict morality."

Shambhala Buddhism, which focuses on meditation, has proven particularly popular in the West. Several corporations have adopted Buddhist techniques to teach executives.

But Buddhism's influence is far-reaching on all levels of society. Nirvana, karma and reincarnation have long been in the American lexicon along with the catch phrases "in a former life" and "let your mind go blank." Even some Christians have been attracted by Buddhist themes such as self-control, pacifism and environmentalism.

Smith lists a variety of reasons for the growth of Buddhism in the United States, including: an increasing rate of immigration of Asian refugees and scholars; a favorable portrayal in Hollywood films such as Little Buddha; high-profile converts such as actor Richard Gere; and the popularity of the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and author of the best seller Ethics for a New Millennium.

Followers refer to the current Dalai Lama (the former Tenzin Gyatso) as "his holiness." The Dalai Lama is suggested to be a facsimile of "enlightened one" was Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), who lived in India between the seventh and fifth centuries B.C. Buddhists believe that truth has been passed down through the ages by a series of these enlightened beings and that everything living is subject to karma, which directs the cycle of reincarnation. They believe that a person's spiritual journey doesn't depend on a relationship with God but on levels of personal spirituality, attained progressively and entirely through self-effort. Reincarnated people are repeatedly reborn based on karma, in an effort to stop the pattern of a miserable life.

"The Buddha taught that by following the eightfold path of self-effort one could escape life's suffering," Smith said.

Johnson believes the opening of the studies center is providential. "There are very few annual opportunities to take courses on Buddhism," he said. "These modules and electives present special training in how to present the gospel to Buddhist people."

By Pauline J.