Buddhist Scriptures
Author: Edward Conze (editor & translator)
Publisher: Pengin (1959), 250pp.

This may not be a "good book" in its own right, but certainly is a book which it is "good" to read.  In an era of the renascence of religions, the onus is on Christians who live in a multi-cultural milieu to be familiar with the teachings of other religious practitioners.  Now if you want to learn about other religions, the best thing to do (next to consulting their best practitioners), is to read books by their experts.  This was deeply impressed upon me at a lecture I once attended on "religions" given by a Buddhist scholar with a doctorate in Comparative Religion.  When it came to the segment on Christianity, nothing of what he said came close to what I experienced as a Christian.  Looking back now, I can understand where he was coming from.  What he offered was a "textbook", academic version dealing with gods, worship, holy books, festivals, sacred places, and so on.

That made me think.  Is it possible that the "truth" we learn about other religions from our Christian preachers and theological teachers is equally distorted?  As a result, I became an ardent advocate of seeking the truth about other religions from their own best teachers.

So what do you do if you want to learn about Buddhism?  For a start, you can read Edward Conze's Buddhist Scriptures.  Let me first give you an outline of the book, and then I am going to highlight the best passages that will challenge our myths about Buddhists and Buddhism.

The structure is simple, based as it is on a time-line concept: past, present and future.  Part One consists of passages on the Teacher: the Buddha himself (in the past).  Part Two looks at doctrinal developments (up to the present).  And Part Three looks forward to the coming of a  'messianic' figure who would fulfil the highest aspirations of buddhahood.

What I want to do now is to share with you some of the best excerpts from the text, so as to present the best features of Buddhism.  Up until now, the tendency has been for Christians to look at the worst features of other religions, their "weakest links", so as to take pot-shots at them, hoping thereby to convert their adherents.  May it not be that a more gracious approach would win a better hearing for the sovereign Christ for whom we are ambassadors?

First, there is the story of "The Bodhisattva and the Hungry Tigress".  This is essentially a story about the Buddha in a previous existence.  Three princes (Mahapranada, Mahadeva and Mahasattva) chanced upon a mother tiger weak from having just given birth.  There follows a discussion about how the tiger might die without external aid.  Moved with compassion, Mahasattva decided to sacrifice his own life to save the tigress.  Having dismissed his siblings, he wounded himself so that the tigress might sense the blood, then threw himself in front of the tigress (because she was too weak to move), and was devoured.

What we have here is a deeply moving story of personal sacrifice that the Christian, on first encounter, would dismiss as being sentimental and apocryphal.  But it is a story perfectly coherent with Buddhist concepts of rebirth and the veneration of all life forms.  All religious stories (including Christian ones) bear this element of incredulity that call for what in literature is known as the "willing suspension of disbelief."  It is a process of acculturation that endear them to their practitioners.  Until we can appreciate how dear and precious something is to somebody else, we can hardly hope to effect a proper transplant of a comparable or greater value.

Then there is the story of the "Three Sights".  A seer had disclosed the calling of the prince Sakyamuni Gautama (known to us a Gautama Buddha) to his father.  In order to protect him, and to prevent him from leaving the palace, the king arranged for Sakyamuni to be shielded from suffering of any sort.  As fate would have it, Gautama, while on several pleasure trips, was to encounter the three sights of an aging man, a diseased body, and a corpse.  He was so shaken to the core that, when he finally got to meet a mendicant (begging monk), he was ready to renounce all in pursuit of enlightenment.

This story is well known, and all standard texts on Buddhism would refer to it.  Reading it now directly as a translated source, I can appreciate the ingenuity of the story-teller in summing up the greatest threats to human well-being: degeneration, disease or disability, and death.  (Ironically, these are the bases on which traditional life  insurance is marketed!).  Also, it helps me appreciate the Buddhist psycho-motor response in the negation of desire, and in its essentially intellectual response in the quest for nirvana.

Two passages now, from the doctrinal section, which I find intriguing.  The first is a long poem entitled "The Rhinoceros" (31 stanzas).  This comes in the chapter on "morality".  The poem encapsulates all the ideals of Buddhist philosophy.  It looks at every human value we have ever treasured, and then dismisses it with the haunting refrain, "Fare lonely as rhinoceros".

In other words, nothing is worthwhile in life.  You may seek love, and find that it entangles you in a web of relationship tensions.  You can enjoy life, but pleasures will bring in its wake its own horrendous share of consequences and disappointments.  The things that motivate us - greed, guile, thirst, grudge, ad infinitum ad nauseam - they all lead to delusions.  The things that we care about most hurt us most.  So what is the one thing that really matters?  Nothingness: being rid of passion, and serving mankind with the single-minded aim of being absorbed into a lack of self-awareness.

There is very little here that the Christian can fault.  In fact, except for the absence of theism, most of the poem's tenets are echoed in Ecclesiastes (which is perhaps why many Christians have difficulty with Ecclesiastes).  If anything, the final piece that I am now going to cite far excels some Christians' sense of mindfulness about the treacherousness of life.  In a section of "meditation", there is a passage on "How to be Mindful of Death".  Here is the quintessence of Buddhism.  Death is the only thing worth thinking about, because death alone can transform the way we live. 

Christian teachers of Comparative Religion are in the habit of saying that Buddhism is world-denying and that Christianity is life-affirming.  While there is some truth to that, my own reading of Buddhist texts seems to have yielded a slightly different conclusion.  Buddhism is not just world-denying.  At least in its Mahayana form as espoused by Edward Conze, it is self-denying and other-affirming.

In this respect, it looks like a system of belief far superior to the life-affirming one that is essentially money-grubbing, fearful of pain and death, and is not averse to drawing on every reserve that the vaults of heaven contain that we might experience another iota of convenience and conviviality.  How we can ever hope to convert a  well-educated Buddhist knowledgeable about his faith, I honestly don't know.

Perhaps the reader may ask, "If you can say all these positive things about Buddhism, why are you still a Christian?"  Answer: I am waiting for the Buddhist to ask me this question, and then I would have earned my right to evangelize, but perhaps not before (at least for me).

The point of this review is to underline the importance of understanding other religions as a sound basis for meaningful evangelism.  Not until we have properly understood how it works for our interlocutor (the person with whom we desire to share our faith), not until we can plumb the depths of his faith and know how it actually works for him, that we can hope to fathom the "missing bits" of life's puzzle for him that Christ alone (and not the Buddha) can fulfil.

But I have gone further to hint that, in a mysterious way, there are elements in other religions and cultures that confront us with our own spiritual shallowness.  Just think how shocked Jonah was when a pagan captain tells our pious Jew to pray!  Or the shock Jonah received at the readiness of the Ninevites to repent!

One final word.  Having gone through this gruesome process of patient listening to your interlocutor, and in the depth of your being begun to see the strength of your interlocutor's faith and the weakness of your own belief system, you will find the need for tremendous grace humbly to share your faith in Christ.  And you will need that grace because, after having been heard and understood, your interlocutor will almost invariably ask you about your faith.  He will offer you the opportunity (and if he doesn't, I will wait for God's timing rather than push too hard), and that may well be the moment of epiphany - the moment God chooses to reveal Himself.  The point is that God often uses us when we depend upon Him, and not when we feel superior.  For when I am weak, then am I strong.
(Reviewed by Rev Ng Seng Chuan)

  1. CHAPEL on March 12 will be taken by Dr John Lim.

  2. Our Dean, Dr Quek, will give the 11th Anniversary Lecture Series of the Phnom Penh Bible School and deliver guest lectures at the same school next week at Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

  3. Clearing the Fog from the Pulpit to the Pew: Effective Expository Preaching, Dr. Alvin A. Low's book, is on sale from the Library counter at $10. A chart on preparing and proclaiming expository preaching by Dr. Low will be given away to 'early birds'.

  4. Limited copies of two titles by Rev David W. F. Wong are available for sale at the library counter at $6 each:

  • Make Them Laugh Help Them Learn: Using Humour to Make Learning Fun and Unforgettable

  • The Missing Chopstick

SPECIAL REPORT

This final presentation of our recent graduands concerns Wilfred Leow Hui Ann, who was awarded the Master in Divinity.

Wilfred Leow Hui Ann
BA (Hons.) in English Language, National University of Singapore
Post-graduate Dip. in Education, National Institute of Education
Dip CS, Biblical Graduate School of Theology (summa cum laude)
M.Div, Biblical Graduate School of Theology (magna cum laude)

Wilfred was a teacher at St. Andrew's Junior College. He attends Paya Lebar Chinese Methodist Church. He is currently pursuing M.Th studies at Trinity Theological College, with a view to ministry in the Methodist Church. His life verse is Mt. 5:16: 'Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.'

Thesis Summary: 'Eschatological Judgment and Hell in the Gospel of Matthew'

Most scholars assume that the texts relating to judgment and hell in the Gospel of Matthew describe the fate of the unbeliever. However, a closer study of these texts reveals that they refer to the destiny of the unrighteous people of God. This is true of the Jews of Jesus' day, who are condemned for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. But those who are members of the church, the people of God as reconstituted by Jesus around himself, cannot afford to be complacent: they too will be rejected and suffer the judgment of hell if they fail to live a righteous life befitting a disciple of Jesus. The thesis surveys Old Testament and Intertestamental texts, so as to trace the development of the idea of eschatological judgment and hell, and moves on to examine the relevant Matthean texts against that background. An interesting conclusion of the thesis is that Matthew tells us less about the fate of unbelievers than is commonly supposed.

A Blessed Birthday to ...

Mr Thomas Lee  3/3
Ms Grace Gay 4/3
Rev Dr Danny Goh 4/3
Mdm Ng Cher Meng 4/3
Ms He Liyi 4/3
Mr Oliver Chia Kiat Say 6/3

Mr Wilfred Leow Hui Ann 6/3
Mr Lawrence Tan Kang Seng 6/3
Mr Caleb Low Jia Siang 6/3

Mr Liew Cheng San 7/3
Ms Grace Tan Geok Pek 7/3

Mr Benedict Cheng 8/3

Dr Lim Cheng Geok 8/3
Mr Sonny Tan 8/3
Rev Yoon Jeong Yong 8/3
Mr Ng Kai Seng 9/3
Mrs Tay Hong Hong 9/3

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This page is updated on 06 Mar 2003 by Leong Kok Weng
    Mar 2003