Three Steps Towards Authentic Relationships With Buddhist Neighbors

Propel Sophia

Three steps towards authentic relationships with Buddhist neighbors

by Amanda Mason

Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space. Learn more here >

I grew up knowing both majority culture and my mother’s life as a Thai migrant in Australia. We migrant children grow up internalising the skill of honouring different people’s perspectives as truth, even when they’re different. 

Tensions between my mother’s view on life and those which I was exposed to in school taught me perspective-taking skills: different histories, different ways of weighing up what is valuable in the world led her and I to see the same world in vastly different ways. My mother’s Thai, immigrant perspective wasn’t to be dismissed: it was different to majority culture, and there was much to learn from it.   

I was recently reminded of these lessons on perspective as I wandered the streets of Thai town (nestled next to Chinatown).  We had come to distribute food as a response to economic hardship among Thai migrants due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The temples and Thai foodservice vendors had started the practice of distributing food, and the Christians, keen to care for people in their suffering in a culturally-relevant way, followed their pattern.

As we approached, I was loath to be associated with past White-bred practices of artificially rushing an acquiescent Thai friend towards a conversion they only accept to save face. In our Asian culture, to turn down a gift is to reject a friend. To reject an invitation to convert is to reject friendship with the one who offered it. My mother taught me of tensions her people have long experienced between avoiding this extreme unkindness and accepting a religion which was, and still is, not well understood and so, suspicious. We were not going to put this socially-distanced queue of downtrodden people in the same double bind. 

We came to remember and care for people—my mother’s people—in their suffering, as our God does for us. 

Here’s how perspective-taking skills can enrich the way we serve as followers of Jesus.

Let’s become aware of our cultural blinders 

If we are going to learn from the wisdom God demonstrated when He created all the different cultures in the world, the starting place is to recognise that we are from only one (or maybe two) of those cultures. God made plenty of other ways to view the world. 

Paul spoke in one way to the Jews, in another way to the Greeks. When he was with Greeks, he didn’t try to tell them about the Messiah – they wouldn’t be interested in this. Greeks pursue wisdom (1 Cor 1:22). The Messianic hope was truth for the Jew. Wisdom was truth for Greek. And Paul honoured them both. 

Do we honour the perspectives of people from other cultures? Are we able to honour truth and goodness where we see it, even among other major world religions? I think we can. 

While we can’t fully take off the lenses through which we view the world, we can adopt a humble position of being a learner, rather than a ‘knower.’ The reality of multiple, sometimes contradictory, realities calls for humility and curiosity as we learn from others and honour them.

Relate. Relate. Relate. 

When I was growing up, I learned from my migrant mother that trust was built slowly. 

Over time. 

And over repeated exposures. 

Even if someone attended to you in your suffering, they were only a true friend if they also stuck around. This showed they didn’t just want something from you or, worse, to take advantage of your downtrodden situation. It followed that true friends were worth keeping since they are so hard to find. 

Trusting Christians can be challenging to many people from many South East Asian nations where Christianity has been associated with colonialism and reproach of native cultures. 

To ever feel comfortable encountering Jesus up close, they might first need to encounter him at a distance, through Christians who don’t challenge but honour their alternative religious beliefs, Christians who look for and affirm the kernel of truth that is present in their worldview by God’s general revelation. If that occurs safely, they might dare come closer. 

As I stepped through Thai town, I knew that one of the reasons these faces waiting for free food could attend our stall with any semblance of trust was because other local Thai Christians had been connecting with them through an online group for more than 10 years, and because the format of food distribution was familiar to them.

Out of respect for difficult histories, I now don’t assume relational trust will come immediately. Instead, I urge my Christian community to get on with the long-term high-investment labour of earning authentic trust through transparent, loving relationships. Jews demand signs. Greeks look for wisdom. Today’s hurting world craves authentic, unarmed relationship

Let’s open ourselves up to be enriched

A Thai person, or really, any person from a country with a strong sense of corporate identity (usually a collectivist culture) is likely to hold values which may be different from the values of majority culture. 

When people from these cultures come to know Jesus, when they pore through His Word, they come up with new insights into the gospel which those from cultures traditionally associated with Christianity might have yet to consider. This is precious. Their insights may find blind spots in our Christian communities and remedy weakness in our missional presence. 

Buddhist-background Christians at our church helped us know about the needs in Thai town, in our own backyard.  Their response to suffering was reflexively practical and saw us bring Jesus’ care to Thai people in their marketplace, where our initial impulse was to wait for them to come to our turf or attend our events or groups, which they wouldn’t. But we wouldn’t know this if we didn’t take off our blinders and make time to relate. We had to start by taking time to humbly see and listen to people. 

As I walked down the streets of Thai town, I found myself grateful for the blessing of being shown a bigger view of suffering in our world where our middle-class English-speaking church could have ignored it. Instead, we engaged in something central to Buddhism, which Jesus also commends. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matt 24:45) 



Amanda Mason

Amanda Mason is a bi-cultural Thai-Australian woman gripped by a vision of mutual understanding between Buddhists and Christians which delves beyond the superficial. During her Fellowship at Anglican Deaconess Ministries this year, she’s creating accessible resources to equip Australian Chrisitan communities to understand and engage with the worldview heritage of Buddhist-background believers and express genuine welcome in ways which are perceptible to Buddhists.