As I started studying Buddhism nearly four years ago, one recurring theme in my mind was that there had never been a war carried out by Buddhist armies. I had never heard of a Buddhist missionary, nor did I recall reading about Buddhist zealots or fundamentalists. Of course, once I started reading about the history of Tibet in depth, I was surprised to learn that there were a few lama kings throughout history who marshaled armies to protect the country against invaders.
By and large, Buddhism is not a religion or philosophy that sanctions proselytizing. That really appealed to me, especially given my upbringing in the Bible Belt and all of the religion-based problems that our world faces today.
It really hurt me when I found out a couple of years ago that Christian missionaries were flocking to Mongolia in droves to convert people (in some cases, aggressively) who lost touch with their religious traditions during the Communist rule of that nation. Khorloogiin Choibalsan, a former Buddhist monk who became the Communist leader of Mongolia during the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s, destroyed almost all of the country’s monasteries and had thousands of monks murdered. In 1991, when Communism fell, Christian missionaries moved in. The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, of which I am a member, is raising money to restore the country’s Buddhist infrastructure. One of FPMT’s projects is a television and radio series called “Discovering Buddhism.”
A similar assault on Buddhism is going on all over Asia, especially, I’ve read, in Korea, where in the mid-1990s, temples were burned. Today, according to Wikipedia, 11 of the world’s 12 largest Christian churches are located in Seoul. South Korea is the second-largest originator of missionaries on Earth, second only to the United States.
While waiting to check in for my flight to Cambodia in 2004, a large group of American teenagers and their parents were in line behind me. Their purpose, they explained as they joined hands to pray out loud in the check-in line, was to go to South Korea to support their brothers and sisters in converting non-Christians. I admit I was stumped at the purpose for their trip, given the number of Christian missionaries already in the South Korea.
Meanwhile, if Mongolia and Korea are targets, Time magazine reports that India is Ground Zero, with more foreign missionaries than anywhere else on the globe. India, as you probably know, is the place where Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism all found their roots and all now coexist alongside Islam, Parsism and other plenty of others.
I just don’t get it. It’s frustrating to see people and organizations interfere with cultures and national identity in this way, especially when they use some of the tactics that missionaries have been accused of using in India. There’s even a group that some have called Christian terrorists, the National Liberation Front of Tripura, created and funded by the Tripura Baptist Christian Union, which was formed by Baptist missionaries from New Zealand.
I sometimes wonder if this world of ours will ever see peace, especially when there are people who feel they have the divine right to create havoc and, in some cases, to kill innocent people. Please realize that I’m not saying missionaries are terrorists. But I just don’t get the desire to go out and win souls. It has never made sense to me, not even when I was one of them.
The challenge for anyone who is moderate or progressive is to really find a middle way for themselves and their faith communities. More importantly for me, at least, is the challenge of not getting attached to my perspective of what the world should be like and how its people should act. And the biggest challenge of all, I say after spending 15 minutes writing about all of this, is that of not judging people who don’t share my beliefs or my approach to spirituality.