I began meeting with Buddhist monks not long after my wife
and I moved to Cambodia as missionaries in 2009. I was fascinated by these men who’d forsaken
ordinary life in order to go about the streets barefoot, in saffron robes,
collecting alms, pronouncing blessings, and officiating at ceremonies. I admired their dedication to simplicity,
service, and meditation. I also figured that
they were particularly qualified to teach me about the national religion of
Cambodia—Theravada Buddhism. As a
result, I made it a point to visit them at the local pagoda on a regular basis.
My conversations with the monks have consistently been
positive, interesting and respectful. These
men have taught me a great deal about their religion, and have even asked me to
teach them about Christianity. I
consider many of them friends.
Despite my attempts to clarify differences, in their minds
Buddhism and Christianity are basically the same. As one lay Cambodian Buddhist put it to me, “Christianity
is like bread, and Buddhism is like rice.
They’re both good for you. The
only difference is that in Asia we have the custom of eating rice, while in
Europe and the United States you prefer bread.”
Bread and rice: I suspect this is an analogy that many Western
proponents of inter-faith dialogue would be comfortable affirming. To begin with, it implies that Buddhism and
Christianity belong in the same general category (i.e. religion). It also suggests that one religion or faith
is more or less interchangeable with another; based on individual or cultural
preferences. These are popular
assumptions in the East and the West that give rise to a ‘live and let live’
sort of tolerance.
But the Cambodian Christians I know aren’t nearly so sympathetic. Instead of bread and rice, they prefer a
different analogy—light and darkness. In
fact, some of these brothers and sisters have been deeply distressed by the
fact that I visit Buddhist monks. To
them the pagoda is a den of demons. And
Buddhism itself, rather than being one of the great world religions, is a web
of lies that has ensnared their people for hundreds of years.
While I love and respect these Cambodian sisters and
brothers, initially it was tempting for me to minimize their concerns. Not only did their views seem a bit extreme,
but (I’m ashamed to admit) for a while I consoled myself with the thought that
none of them had ever taken a single course on contextualization or comparative
Later, however, I kept circling back to the same question:
Is it possible that these Cambodian Christians understand something about
Buddhism (and Christianity) that I don’t?
Yes, I’ve studied Buddhism. But they’ve actually been Buddhists. Their experience surely brings with it a level
of insight that can’t be acquired from a book, a class, or even from
Of course, inter-faith dialogue remains of critical
importance. Our Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim,
Sikh and Jewish friends have much to teach us.
More than that, if we don’t understand their beliefs, values, hopes and
fears, how will we ever make the Gospel intelligible to them?
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Scott Sward (MAT '07) and his wife, Andrea (MFT '05), serve in Cambodia with the Evangelical Friends Church.