Buddhist Conversion

Part of Issue 45 – A Many Colour Vision of Hope

Author: Dr Hugh P Kemp, Academic Dean and Head of Mission Studies, Redcliffe College


In their introduction to a recent book on mission to Buddhists, David Lim and Steven Spaulding talk of “[communicating] the gospel in culturally sensitive ways and with transformational impact” (Lim et al., 2005a). They go on to talk of “reaching Buddhists for Christ”. Indeed two of their books have in the title “sharing Jesus” in the Buddhist world (Lim and Spaulding, 2005, Lim et al., 2005b). These are of course euphemisms for what has historically been called the desire to convert others. “Conversion” has been a commonly used word in Christian mission, particularly amongst evangelicals.

While not using the word “conversion” explicitly, Esther Baker has given us a conversion story in her book I Once Was a Buddhist Nun (2009). She uses phrases like “coming to know God”, “I submitted willingly [to God]”, and “[God rescued me”. (Baker, 2009: 142). These terms all fall within what has generally been regarded as Christian “conversion”. When using the word “conversion”, two issues present themselves: firstly “what is conversion”?, and secondly “how do people speak of „conversion‟”? It is tempting to impose this category onto those to whom Christians witness, or with whom they “share Jesus”. Western Buddhism has been growing significantly since the 1960s particularly, and is widely represented in all Western countries (Prebish and Baumann, 2002). Drawing on empirical research, this paper explores Western Buddhists‟ own understanding of their so-called “conversion” into Buddhism, and then explores how Christians might re-tool their own expectations and language of mission in light of this.

I wish not so much to look at the technical etymology of the word “conversion” – how it might be defined technically – but how it is perceived by 23 Buddhist interviewees I studied between 2003 and 2008 as part of a post-graduate research project. The word “conversion” and “convert Buddhist” is used so widely and uncritically amongst the literature on Western Buddhism that it begs closer scrutiny (for example Wallace, 2002, 34). Yet my interviewees were decidedly uncomfortable with the word. By examining their understanding of their “conversion” into Buddhism, I wish to hold this as a mirror to those who wish to “share Jesus” with them.

Full PDF: Buddhist Conversion

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