A theoretical framework for rituals within the context of Buddhist-Christian relations
In this paper I will investigate roots and motives in our thinking about rituals. Why are Buddhist rituals even important for Christians to study? How will our conclusions effect the relationship between Buddhists and Christians and the understanding of the Good News?
I will introduce an alternative way of looking at Buddhist rituals that will answer underlying worldview questions. The two approaches, Christian and Buddhist, will then be compared and a theoretical framework will appear that helps to track the underlying ideas and motives regarding rituals.
The paper aims at a paradigm shift by showing that it is preferable to engage Buddhists with Jesus by avoiding to contextualize rituals and instead letting them follow Jesus as Buddhists. Then as Jesus followers they can interpret their Buddhist rituals through a Jesus perspective.
How motives regarding rituals help or hinder the message of Christ
Why are Buddhists rituals important in the first place for Christians?
One underlying reason is about conversion:
“We want to bring Buddhists to Christ, which inevitably means that those who believe become Christians, they cease to be Buddhists and convert to Christianity. Once they stop being Buddhist, they can not follow the Buddhist religion.”
Another reason is about contextualization:
“Do all rituals have to be abandoned? Many rituals that get contextualized can still be used and incorporated into the new believer’s Christian life. If the new believer would not be allowed to use any of the Buddhist rituals while also not following the Buddhist religion, this new believer would feel a void that often does not find a valid substitute within the Christian community. In order to avoid this empty feeling, why not infuse some biblical meaning into rituals they have practiced before? Doing so will help them to connect to God in a more meaningful way.”
Another one is about evangelism:
“In order to evangelise, we have to avoid coming across as being against everything Buddhist as if every Buddhist ritual or ceremony is wrong and compromising our faith. We also want to find some entry points within their rituals to convey the truth of Christ. Some rituals are neutral, others could be contextualized, meaning they could be infused with new meaning. If we do this, Christians could potentially participate in all kinds of rituals with their Buddhist friends and by doing so giving an example that whenever friends or relatives come to Christ and join the Christianity, they could still do the same without feeling they are compromising their new faith.”
The goal is to show that for a Buddhist background believer there is no reason to think they have to abandon everything Buddhist just because they are now following Christ. The motive is to win them over to Christ. The unspoken but still well communicated command behind all this is that they have to stay away from anything that has to do with the religious Buddhist side, while the cultural side of their background can be fully embraced. And it is here where the difficulty starts. This neat, clean cut between religion and culture however is first based on the enlightenment idea that there is a thing called religion and a thing called culture, and that both can be separated from each other. Second, it assumes that religious or philosophical Buddhism does not hold any potential for guiding people towards Jesus.
The first one got refuted in H. L. Richard’s papers “New paradigms for religion, multiple religious belonging and insider movements” and “World Religions: Paradigm in Cross-Cultural Encounter”. The second one will be examined in this paper.
The underlying motive is often to win Buddhists over to Christianity, based on the erroneous idea that it is impossible to follow Christ outside of Christianity. The role of rituals in the problem of conversion is examined from four perspectives. The following table will give an overview of how those perspectives (A-D) fit into the bigger picture.
A. Buddhist rituals for Buddhists and how they interpret the rituals
Most Buddhists rituals have to do with merit making either for oneself, for other persons alive or for the ancestors. There is a huge amount of social obligation involved in these merit making rituals. Without enough merit, life after death would be worse than it could be with merit making. There is this general fear of what happens after death. In order to show love and respect and honour towards family members and ancestors, a Buddhist has to participate in those rituals.
In this paper I am categorising rituals according their goals and purposes. There are four major goals and purposes:
- merit making
- facilitating meditation and experiencing progress towards enlightenment
- power balance and appeasing
- bonding, saving and giving face and good relationships. This include showing respect to Buddha in various ways.
Here are a few examples.
Merit making rituals are mostly giving alms to monks and receiving merit predominantly for oneself but also for others, dead or alive. Most interactions with monks result in acquiring more merit, this can be in the street or in a temple.
Meditation session rituals involve a lotus flower and three incense sticks, sitting and walking meditation, seeking the abbott or a meditation master for meditation advice. All those are helping with a person’s progress towards enlightenment.
Power balance and appeasing rituals are maintaining a spirit house and a home altar. The goal is that spirits will not bother the living.
Most of all other rituals fall under bonding, saving and giving face and good relationships with people, like participating in festivals, and ceremonies as well as various ways of showing compassion and coolness of heart.
In the remainder of the paper I focus on merit making rituals and philosophical Buddhist rituals. The way of philosophical Buddhism is to practice meditation on the basis of a correct understanding of Buddha’s dhamma with the goal of attaining nibbana (nirvana in Sanskrit). Merit making on the other hand has nothing to do with Buddhism per se but more with a better life or next life. Merit making almost takes for granted that it is impossible to attain nibbana. And because it seems impossible, the next best option, especially for lay people, is to secure a better next life.
An interesting observation is that all of those rituals are not purely symbolic. They are actually changing realities or are at the very least being perceived as changing realities because there is a community consensus in those perceptions.
All of those rituals function as community identity markers, meaning if someone is a Buddhist or a Christian is determined by him participating or not in those rituals. Not all Buddhists participate in all of those rituals. But likely all Buddhists participate in enough Buddhist rituals to be perceived as Buddhists by their neighbors and family and they avoid participating in Christian rituals if they are conscious about being perceived as Buddhists.
B. Contextualization: Christians participating in Buddhist ritual
Can Christian believers perform or participate in Buddhist rituals?
There are different ways of analysing different roles of rituals. For this paper the most important role is the community identity marker role. Buddhist rituals belong to Buddhists, not to Christians. This is relevant when it comes to contextualization. There are two ways Christians can use contextualization: Either they simply participate in a ritual lead by Buddhists or they use a Buddhist ritual, infused with some related but new meaning, within their Christian community.
It is up to the Christian to decide how and how much she wants to participate in Buddhist rituals. It is unlikely a Buddhist will object. The deciding factor is the conscience of the Christian and the Christina community.
C. Contextualization: Christians using Buddhist rituals in Christian context and and contextualize their meaning
As long as Christians only use a few Buddhist elements of rituals and they are comfortable with it, not many will object. It starts getting interesting when Christians publicly perform Buddhist rituals and insert their own meaning into it. This gives the message that Buddhist rituals are up for grabs. When this contextualization effort incorporates using Buddhist terminology and reinterpreting those terms according to Christina doctrine and when such action is performed with the goal of evangelising and pulling Buddhists into Christianity, then Buddhists do not like that. These kind of efforts, mainly from the Catholic Church, have met serious repercussions.
Buddhist monks interpreted Catholic contextualization activities, especially in the 1980s, as a “plot, in which Buddhist teachings have been distorted”
Conclusion: This kind of advanced contextualization does not work. It is too Buddhist for Christian leaders and too Christian for the Buddhist community.
D. Buddhists who follow Christ performing Buddhist rituals
The meaning of rituals for Buddhist followers of Christ
Buddhists who are dependent on Christ trust Christ as he has freed them from karma. There is no merit making involved, they do not need to make merit because Christ has transferred all merit to them.
The work of Christ for these Buddhist Christ followers is that he overcame the power of karma. As death had no power to keep Christ dead, the cycle of life and death got broken, the cycle of cause and effect got broken. The wrong attachment that Buddha preached against got broken for all. This has not happened in Buddha’s time (as Buddha lived some 500 years before Christ), hence Buddha could not have preached something non-existent. Therefore Buddha talked the only truth that was available to him, that everyone has to attain and experience this detachment from karma.
The common Buddhist belief is that we all need merit, more than we have. We all need good works more than we have. The interesting observation of merit making (tam boon) is that the person who makes merit for another person does not lose some merit. It is not perceived as the more merit I make for someone else, the less I have. The principle behind it is the one of selfless giving: The receiver is blessed by the gift received and the giver is blessed through the act of selflessness. Such selfless giving is translated as dana (Pali). And dana is exactly the act of merit making when giving alms to monks. Besides, dana is a nirvanic term and shows the pureness with which Jesus has given his life to liberate us from karma and unwholesome deeds (akusala, Pali)
Based on this foundation, Buddhist followers of Jesus practice alms giving to monks. The ritual looks the same but the meaning changed, it changed away from merit making to a more philosophical side, starting with what Buddha taught and ending with Jesus giving himself.
Buddhist followers of Jesus can meditate on the goodness of God, on the permanence of God, his metta (Pali for agape love) overcoming karma and attachments to anything non-nirvanic, and many things more. This kind of meditation is not to attain or achieve something but to be mindful of all nirvanic aspects that come from God and let Him transform us. With practice, this kind of meditation spills over into everyday life and meditation rituals involved are transformed into acts of metta towards fellow humans.
Contextualization vs. Buddhist followers of Christ performing rituals
The common opinion is that ‘if we do not separate culture from religion, religion creeps in and compromises the faith over the long run. And if some Buddhist religious thinking or worldview will be kept, karmic thinking will prevent believers from finding a breakthrough in their faith and gain the true freedom of Christ, because that kind of freedom and peace is not found in Buddha, otherwise there would not be much reason for them to embrace Jesus in the first place. And proper discipleship can only happen if there is a clear cut from Buddhist philosophy and religion. Yet they do not have to abandon their culture. They actually should keep their beautiful Thai culture. So once we have figured out which culture elements they can keep from their Buddhist rituals when following Christ, we are all set.’
The above strategy may be fine for Christians, it will not however encourage Buddhists to become Christians. Why should they? Because all of a sudden they could participate in Buddhists rituals? They can do this as Buddhists just fine. It doesn’t matter in how many Buddhist rituals a Christian is allowed to participate, what matters is if a person has switched religions. And the identity markers for switching from being Buddhist to being a Christians, according to our interviews, are going to the temple, giving alms to monks and not going to church and not mix and mingle with Christians, participating in a Buddhist way in Buddhist funerals and respecting the Buddha. That makes a Buddhist a Buddhist. If a person is socialising on purpose among Christians, goes to church, does not go to the temple and does not give alms to monks, and does not act like other Buddhists do during a funeral, then she is a Christians.
There is another identity marker which is more like an undercurrent: How a person speaks about Buddha. In general, Buddhists feel that Christians do not speak well about Buddha, that they lack respect, that they do not appreciate Buddha. Neither do Christians appear knowledgable about Buddhism or Buddhist rituals and ceremonies. Even Buddhists who think of themselves as not very knowledgeable about Buddhist doctrines still think that Christians know even less.
So why do Christians then want to use Buddhists rituals within their own community? Especially when the meaning of the ritual is not exactly the same but different, contextualized. Is there an expectation that Buddhists can still do their rituals within the Christian community and therefore it might be easier to win them for Christ? One reason might be that if Buddhists who became Christians are not allowed to use any of their rituals, then it creates a vacuum within their worldview and this vacuum will be filled with something non-Christian. So if they would be allowed to use some of their rituals but infused with new meaning, then they not only do not feel that vacuum but also get practically discipled as overtime when they do the rituals they are reminded of the new meaning.
When they use incense, they are reminded that their prayers are a fragrance to God and as sure as the incense fragrance is filling the room God has heard their prayers.
Tying a white string could symbolise Christ power over evil and reminds the one who wears it that he is under the Lord’s protection.
Christian objection to this kind of contextualisation is twofold:
- Why is it necessary? Why using a walker when you can walk just fine without it?
- The contextualized meaning might get lost over time and what remains is an empty ritual. But that ritual is filled with Buddhist meaning within the Buddhist community, so what might happen is that the person who uses this ritual will revert to the Buddhist meaning and thus compromise Christ.
Some advocate for a temporal use but like to wean a new believer off it over time. The idea is that it is not something bad but it is not something beneficial either, especially not in the long run. It is more seen as a compromise for new believers until they are mature enough to not need those helps.
Why deal with philosophical Buddhism
First, philosophical Buddhism is not as neatly separated from Folk Buddhism as Western scholars like to portray it. It’s more like two colors nicely mixed, together with another color for Brahminism and another for traditions.
Second, the idea to contextualize towards rituals finds some roots in the idea that Buddhism has to be rejected as a wrong religion. This goes all the way back to early missionaries. Because Buddhism is completely rejected, the only other thing left to contextualize is culture and some safe rituals.
Third, if as an alternative option, the adoption of rituals is deemed as not recommendable, looking deeper in Buddhist philosophies and worldviews can open up some amazing opportunities.
Fourth, philosophical Buddhism vs animism. Paul DeNeui wrote “Pure Theravada Buddhism and its practices deal primarily with death. The making of merit in Buddhism is not primarily for those living today but for the future – either for the benefit of future reincarnations of the living or to benefit those already dead. Animistic practices, on the other hand, address the issues of the here and now. For the majority of both urban and rural Thai people, a clear distinction would not be relevant to them. It is the practice of animism within their Buddhist context that provides a sense of security for the present, something that science and traditional western religious practices tend to ignore. Animism is the means of dealing with what is important for living life today”. And James Gustafson also stresses the importance to deal with animism: “If animism represents the basic content of the religion of the Thai peasant (and a great many who are not peasants) then it is on animism that the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be focused in an informed way if the Church is to grow”.
This is, however, to contrast philosophical Buddhism with animism. The question they are dealing with is one of practical belief. But when it comes to identity, Thais do not claim to be animists but Buddhists, i.e. the animistic beliefs are not shaping the conscious identity of people, their animistic practices are perceived as Buddhist even if they have nothing to do with any Buddhist doctrines.
So one approach is to let Jesus deal with all animistic fear and then pose the option that a Thai (or Cambodian or Burmese, etc.) can become Christian and stay Thai. This however is not resonating with them because “To be Thai is to be Buddhist”. So even Thai Buddhists do not know their correct Buddhist doctrines, it will be in the end those doctrines they are convinced are superior to anything Christian. They are comfortable with letting a monk explain to anyone who wants to know why Buddhist doctrines are superior. So their identity is de facto Buddhist.
By now it has gotten well understood that Christians should focus on Jesus being victorious over people’s animistic fears, still lots of Buddhists do not wish to make the switch to the Christian religion. They do actually like Jesus and some dare to wish it would be possible to have a Buddhist identity and follow Jesus. But it is the Christians who view this as syncretism, hence they do not accommodate this thought nor do they offer this a a possibility. And the reason for viewing this as syncretism is the idea that Buddhist doctrines and biblical doctrines are opposites or at least are somehow not compatible.
But there is an alternative to this thinking.
Given that any truth is from God, any truth is truth regardless who said so. So when Buddha said we live in a world of dissatisfactoriness (dukkha), that our human ego-cravings are to be blamed for it, that there is an end to those ego-cravings, and that there is a way out of this dissatisfactoriness, he speaks truth. Obviously Buddha could not have told people they have to rely on Jesus, as there was no Jesus 500 years before Jesus. So suppose, just as a thought experiment for now, God wanted to give Buddha some revelation, how would it look like? Buddha pointed out that people do not have an immortal essence (atman), in straight contrast to common Braministic thinking. This can be affirmed biblically. Adam and Eve died, they were not immortal. Any kind of immortality would be a gift from God, and in the NT it is the Holy Spirit that indwells people that changes them and ultimately makes them immortal (although we still physically die). Interestingly, it is the spirit from God who is God who does so. In the same way as the Brahmins thought: The atman, the indwelling immortal godly essence, is the connection to the paramatman who is the same as Brahman. The simple reason why the Brahmins in Buddha’s time were wrong was because the atman, the Holy Spirit, was not given to people yet because Jesus did not live yet, nor did he die, nor did he rise from the dead. Therefore Buddha was correct in pointing out that no one had such atman immortality and therefore no atman. No atman is the same as anatta. In other words, Buddha pointed out that no one had the Spirit of God and therefore no one was immortal. Immortality is not possible without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, neither spiritual nor physical immortality. So there was no ‘realisation of immortality’ going to happen. Atman could not get realised. In order to get anywhere, according to Buddha, people had to realise that there was no permanent essence upholding them, they are utterly and completely stuck in karma, nothing within them would get them out of karma.
Now the obvious question is how someone who is that stuck can rely on oneself to get out of karma and attain nirvana. The answer is rather simple:
- Because there is no one else to rely on. Jesus was not born yet. There was no one who was able to save others as everyone had to deal with their own karma.
- Although Buddha attained nirvana, he was not the liberator that could liberate others. Interestingly Buddha never claimed to be the liberator, which begs the question why he is consistently compared to Christ who did claim the be the savior.
- Everyone is responsible for their own life. Karma places the responsibility for the misery of this world, biblically correct, on people.
In the absence of a savior who was able to get people out of this misery, this dukkha, this sin-life, Buddha pointed to the Noble Eightfold Path. A path to nirvana, a path so pure no one would dare to claim it would be easy to walk on. Then Jesus came and declared “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (Jn 14:6)
The point of comparison can not be simply their doctrines. Buddhist doctrines can be read from the perspective of Christ. Buddha pointed to Christ, in a similar way as Isaiah pointed to Christ. Isaiah’s writings were for Jews though and therefore written to people in different circumstances, history and background. Buddha pointed to Christ in a different way, his doctrines were in contrast to brahministic beliefs which also explains why Buddha stated his anatta doctrines as the crucial dividing line in direct contrast to atman which constituted Brahman in humans. In other words Buddha said ‘You are not gods. You can not rely on the atman essence within you, thinking you will attain moksha because of it. There is no inherent immortality within any humans, and believing there is, is the obstacle to enlightenment’.
The question ‘Is there a God?’ was not Buddha’s focus. His focus was guiding people towards liberation. And to be fair, at that point in history we do not see God acting directly with non-Jews in a way that had revealed any kind of savior. So Buddha could not proclaim a message that a savior will come, who that savior would be and how all this might be happening. So a God who saves humans was a unknown concept. So the brahministic gods were personal gods but they were all under karma, except Brahman and paramatman (and Brahman is not understood as a personal God), which means a concept of a supreme deity that is personal and actively pursuing the goal to get humans saved was nowhere to be found. What was found are ideas of gods that either lacked the will or the power to get humans out of dukkha. To reject such gods as a reliable source for getting oneself from karma to nirvana does not take much as no one even propagated such a god. But rejecting such non-existing gods does not mean that Buddha rejected the one and only God about whom Buddha did not have much revelation, beside the little revelation that is mentioned in Romans 1:19-20. But God’s eternal power and his divine nature in and of itself were no qualities that saved people, especially not 500 years before Christ. Therefore Buddha did not reject God but false atman notions and the saving/ liberating abilities of atman.
For Buddhists who follow Jesus Christ, Buddha’s Four Noble Truths complement a belief in Jesus once Jesus is understood as the permanent truth, the dhamma, and as the Noble Eightfold Path, the path to nirvana. Nirvana can be understood as the absence of karma, dukkha, evil, sin, etc., something that the Bible calls heaven or the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. In other words nirvana can be understood as the sphere of God. Buddhists who believe this, can follow Jesus as Buddhists. Such beliefs are compatible with Buddhist doctrine as well as faith in Jesus. But now this savior is a nirvanic savior. And God is a nirvanic God. And not a karmic savior coming from a karmic god. Such thing would not make any sense to Buddhists, which begs the question why Christians keep insisting on the karmic nature of God and Jesus, especially since such karmic nature of God and Jesus is the complete opposite of the NT tells us about Jesus and God.
I have presented a different view of the role of rituals, based on a worldview that is both Buddhist based and Jesus based. In such a worldview rituals change interpretation and the new interpretations coming from a new perspective are based on a Buddhist theology of Jesus. The enhanced difficulty is that such a theology is based on Buddhist terms which also have to be understood from a perspective that has Jesus as the center.
The table below provides an overview of the framework. A, B, C and D correspond to the paragraphs above.
||belief in original meaning of ritual
||participating in some rituals
||contextualizing the meaning of rituals
||partly or fully enlightened perspective
||not Jesus followers
||not Jesus followers
||meditating and philosophical
||B. no and yes
While the table should by now be self-explanatory, the “no” in the column “contextualizing the meaning of rituals” needs some further explanation. Buddhist Jesus followers do not need to contextualize because they live within the context. Jesus is not interpreted into their context, the meaning of the rituals change themselves because the rituals are now understood from what Jesus has done: He has done all merit for all people, he has overcome karma, the path to full liberation is attainable. Neither is Jesus getting contextualized, meaning Jesus does not get placed into the Buddhist context because Jesus is the one who changes the realities for his Buddhist followers from within.
The roles of Christian followers of Christ are those of loving and accepting brothers and sisters who enjoy being with Buddhists and getting to know how they live their faith. The role is not to manipulate them into the Christian community. Therefore only mature enough Christians should interact with Buddhists followers of Christ. Those mature ones need to embrace a quite steep learning curve as learning can only happen when previously held beliefs can be questioned whether they are based on a certain interpretation colored by culture, theological stream or misconceptions or based on truth that can be understood within another philosophical thinking system.
Christians who do not yet understand how a Buddhist can follow Christ, can start by investigating how the Christian words have misrepresented Christ and his work and how such misrepresenting has hindered lots of Buddhists finding freedom in Jesus. Without deeply understanding those misrepresentations one is doomed to draw people into a religion instead of drawing them to Jesus.
Buddhist identity and rituals
The role of rituals has now shifted from making merit for a better next life or gaining enlightenment or trying to restore a power balance or appeasing spirits or from aiming at keeping good relationships to express some truths that go beyond anything dukkha. Previously all the rituals were done to compensate the negative effects of dukkha. Now that dissatisfactoriness found an end in Jesus the savior, the liberator, those same rituals are getting interpreted from a new perspective. Before Jesus, people were stuck in karma, after Jesus, people can be free from karma. Hence, rituals can now be interpreted as a celebration, a commemoration or a visual symbol of a experienced reality. Any ritual was only existent because of the common experience of dukkha. The ritual’s goal was to make the best out of humanities’ shared experience. Now that Jesus dealt with dukkha and karma, the ritual’s goal is to acknowledge this new reality. It is not a “striving for” but a “finding peace in” experience. Jesus can be seen as the one who accomplished the unaccomplishable that had to get accomplished. Now the new reality can be celebrated through the ritual.
Buddhists who follow Jesus according to the outlines above, are keeping their Buddhist identity. Other Buddhists they are see them as Buddhists. They meet together, think and meditate on how Jesus saved them from karma and spread this good news to their friends and family. Miracles and physical healings happen and Jesus is praised. Neighbors sometimes witness major character changes, like one person who was previously always grumpy, swearing and mean who became joyful, friendly and ready to help others. They listen or read stories of Jesus and practise follow him in his way of compassion towards others. Now from within their Buddhist identity they can deal with their rituals. As Buddhists they can decide which rituals they want to practice and which ones they do not want to practice, how they want to practice which ritual and what the rituals mean to them. And if they reject a certain ritual, they reject that ritual as a Buddhist. They do not reject the ritual because they have switched to the Christian religion. Religion is not anymore the issue. Christianity is not anymore in the way of them following Jesus.
But if a Christian is rejecting a ritual, it is because of being a Christian, because of belonging to Christianity, at least from the Buddhist point of view. For a Buddhist it is not the belief in Jesus that is the issue but the simple belonging to Christianity and therefore to the Christian community. Jesus is sidelined, a non-issue, irrelevant.
But not so if a Buddhist chooses to interpret a ritual in a different way. Such interpretation of a ritual has not its root in a religious community identity. If prompted, such a Buddhist follower of Jesus can provide an answer that is actually based on Jesus and he can provide a theologically correct answer that not only makes sense to a fellow Buddhist but at the same time gives an example how Buddha has prepared a foundation on which a Buddhist can ground his or her faith in Jesus. She sees God at work in giving revelation to Buddha. To her Jesus is the dhamma, the Noble Eightfold Path, the liberation. She puts her full trust in Jesus and experiences how she can depend on him. From that foundation all rituals are interpreted.
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