In missions, contextualization is the art and science of bringing timeless, transcendent gospel truths into a culturally relevant, understandable form.
Contextualization depends on the amount of common ground available between an unbelieving worldview and biblical categories. Communicating the gospel within an Eastern context is particularly challenging. Few, if any, biblical teachings translate easily into the dharmic religious context—a world of religions based on the cyclical nature of history, impersonal forces as the highest reality, and the goal of achieving nonexistence after death. Religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Shintoism continually confound Western missionaries.
How can we share the gospel with Buddhists without a common set of shared assumptions? The Four Noble Truths can give Christians four useful conversational diving boards to communicate the Bible’s views of life, death, and salvation.
Bridging the Bible and Buddha
Thousands of years ago, a wealthy, comfortable member of the royalty embarked on a quest for ultimate meaning. The wisdom he accrued eventually led him to become known more for his legendary insight than his staggering affluence or power.
Who was this king? From first glance, it might sound like a description of Siddhartha Gautama, alias “the Buddha” (“enlightened one”). But we’re actually describing the biblical King Solomon.
Solomon, who predated Buddha by roughly 500 years, made observations in the Book of Ecclesiastes much like those eventually ascribed to later Eastern thinker. Both reasoned that life so fleeting and marked by suffering that ultimate value in this life is unattainable. Both also taught that mankind intrinsically longs for more than temporal life can offer. And since Solomon’s wisdom spread across the ancient world (1 Kings 4:31), it’s conceivable that Solomon’s teachings directly influenced Buddha himself.
Of course, Solomon and Buddha reached massively different conclusions—one commended the pursuit of total self-extinguishment, while Solomon ends Ecclesiastes saying, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13b).
What were Solomon’s own “noble truths,” and where does his path lead?
1. This Life is Full of Suffering
Like Siddhartha Gautama, Solomon ultimately didn’t let his royalty blind him to the harsh realities of life. Solomon begins Ecclesiastes on a note of vexing realism: “Vanity of vanities… all is vanity” (1:2).
Ecclesiastes is about the pursuit of lasting worth, signified by yitron, the Hebrew word for profit. To his dismay, Solomon observed that life was hevel (“vapor”), a term signifying the fleetingness, futility, and vanity of temporal existence.
Solomon’s hevel partially overlaps with Buddha’s understanding of dukkha, which means that life is chiefly characterized by suffering. Hard work and wisdom cannot guarantee perfect outcomes. Life is random and marked by pain, and death comes to call, leaving all our inner longings ultimately unfulfilled.
But where Buddha presented a snapshot of the human experience, Solomon saw the whole film reel. Solomon knew that earth was a paradise lost, as described in the history of Genesis 1-3. Man’s earthly life was free from suffering and futility because he existed in perfect fellowship with the all-sufficient God of infinite worth in whom humanity finds the “path of life,” “fullness of joy,” and “pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). They needed nothing else (Psalm 23:1). Everything was good (Genesis 1:31).
Yet a few thousand years later, Solomon wrote that “all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). What changed?
2. Life’s Suffering Stems From Our Desires
Buddha attributed suffering to desire. Buddha called this tanha. Unsatisfied yearnings keep us on the hamster-wheel of suffering, in spite of our creature comforts one can attain. But the concept of tanha improperly puts the blame on desire itself rather than its object.
In the biblical worldview, suffering in general—even random suffering—is a collective result of man’s general sin against God, traceable to the first humans. Man traded true satisfaction in God for fleeting, selfish pleasure. In spite of the warning not to eat the forbidden fruit, they “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). This severed them from satisfaction in God and ushered chaos into an otherwise perfect cosmos. Now we live under “the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Peter 1:4).
Biblically, however, desire itself is not the issue. Solomon noted that God has “put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Creation fell when man chose wrong desires detached from God. History, thus, is intrinsically linear, not cyclical; something changed, and has been different ever since. It can, therefore, be set right again.
The narrative nature of Christianity—something Buddhism knows little of—means that suffering has a real, historical cause and terminus. And the gospel offers not only the opportunity to escape eternal suffering but also to endure it.
3. We Can Be Redeemed, Even Through Suffering
Forgetting of past robs both the present and the future of meaning. Solomon knew that the original world and humanity were created unfallen. Buddha, however, had no backdrop against which to analyze the present. He saw only the current human condition of suffering, longing, and mortality. With such a limited data set, the only solution he could conceive was nonexistence.
But for the biblical writers, desire and suffering are echoes of a better creational order lost but destined for recovery—reminders that the world is not right. Solomon wrote, “God is testing them [humanity] that they may see that they themselves are but beasts… as one dies, so dies the other” (Ecclesiastes 3:17-19a). “[T]he creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21). Our fallen world is awaiting a solution from God.
God’s aseity means he is fulfilled in himself with no impure desires or insatiable cravings. He not only has everything he needs; he is all he needs. Hence, God does not need us. But 1,000 years after Solomon—500 years after Buddha—God acted scandalously, exchanging his good karma for our bad, imputing his own infinite supply of good karma to all who trust him.
Modeling a type of self-denial to which we can never fully attain, the divine Son was incarnated as the man Jesus Christ. Jesus—the better wise king of whom Solomon was only a type—traded the pleasures of heavenly royalty to enter into our suffering for sin and redeem us from it (Philippians 2:3-11). He had no ill desires and thus deserved no retributive justice, yet he endured on behalf of his people the totality of God’s cosmic justice in his death on the cross. Jesus was “made perfect through suffering” so that he could mercifully plead our case before God (Hebrews 2:10-18).
Since he was innocent, God raised Christ from the dead. Never to die again, he reigns as Lord of the universe, and will return to remove sin and death, restoring the world to perfection. And Christ invites humanity to join him in this ultimate, final resurrection into bliss and harmony with God, with new bodies free from sinful cravings (2 Corinthians 5:8). Jesus’ death for us effectively extinguishes our old self, making us each individually a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Though we still suffer in this life, because he now lives, we can live too (John 14:19), quenching our sinful cravings in anticipation of experiencing deep, satisfying union with God in eternity. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).
4. Following the Path of Jesus Leads to Eternal Joy
What about the here and now? Buddha taught that freedom from suffering depended upon renouncing all desires and attaining to nothingness—extinguishment of the self in the state of nirvana.
The path of Jesus also involves self-denial; Jesus himself said, “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). But this a completely different type of self-denial: self-denial with the guarantee of ultimate gain. Jesus also said, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39, emphasis added). Jesus described the economy of God as a “treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). Self-denial in Christianity is a temporary cost, while the reward is eternal.
The reality of Christ redeems even the most unbearable pain. “We suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). This is not an unconditional promise of psychological or emotional prosperity. But Christ, while not offering ease or emotional comfort in the present life, does make life livable for those who know him.
The noblest path is to simply follow Jesus—to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” and “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Choosing the Right Path
We can agree with Buddhists that life is full of suffering. Buddhists can respond in two ways. They can attempt to escape all desire—including good desires for things like joy, justice, and the welfare of others—but will quickly discover we lack the resources in ourselves to adequately do so. But if anyone responds to Christ in trust, asking him to take their bad karma and give him his own righteousness, life takes on new meaning knowing that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
In conclusion, consider asking your Buddhist friend or neighbor questions like these:
- Where do you think suffering comes from?
- Is it realistically possible to rid yourself of all desire? Aren’t some desires—altruistic ones, for instance—inherently good?
- How do you feel about the idea of attaining nonexistence? Would eternal enjoyment of an all-sufficient God be a better?
- If there were a God, what sort of God do you think he would have to be in order to willingly choose to suffer alongside us?
- When, at the end of the day, you fail to adequately quench your desires and you inevitably behave unwisely, what then? How do you address your own guilt? What makes you so sure that, given enough lifetimes, you’ll eventually get it right?
- What if someone could somehow transfer all their positive karma to your account, as a pure and unrestrained act of love? How would you respond?
Solomon’s father penned these words in Psalm 37: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” The hungry Buddhist soul can be satisfied eternally with God as his chief desire and Jesus as his treasure.