Is Buddhism Indispensable in the Cross-Cultural Appropriation of Christianity in Burma?

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Is Burmese Theravada Buddhism dispensable for the cross-cultural appropriation and mission of Christianity in Burma? (1) According to the traditionally held Burmese (2) Protestant Christian assumption--inherited from Adoniram Judson--the answer is yes, (3) for the simple reason that Burmese Buddhism and Christianity are totally different from one another, and there is "no point of contact" between the two. Whereas Christianity is theistic, Buddhism is nontheistic; whereas the former is a religion of grace (humans are believed to be saved only by faith in Jesus Christ through God's grace), the latter is a philosophy that recommends self-effort in achieving liberation. Some non-Buddhists consider Burmese Buddhism "idolatrous" (4) because Buddhist devotees venerate images of the Buddha and other sacred objects. Hence it is perceived that Buddhism is not at all related to Christianity and not indispensable to Christianity. This paper suggests the opposite by examining principal Burmese Buddhist terms used by Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) in two tracts written in Burmese: "A View of the Christian Religion" (Tract No. 1) and "The Golden Balance" (Tract No. 3).

Adoniram Judson was America's first overseas missionary translator in Burma. He was a graduate of Brown University (1804-1807) and of Andover Theological Seminary (1808-1810). Judson, together with his wife, Ann Hasseltine (1789-1826), arrived in Rangoon, Burma, on 13 July 1813 and served there for nearly four decades as the first missionary of the newly established Baptist Board of Foreign Missions for the United States. Judson acquired a good knowledge of the Burmese vernacular and some knowledge of Pali, the canonical language of Theravada Buddhism. In 1840, he finished the translation of the Bible; in 1849, he produced the English-Burmese and Burmese-English dictionaries. (5)

Judson wrote at least eight tracts in Burmese. (6) Of the eight, six, including "A View of the Christian Religion," were published in The Septenary or, Seven Manuals. (7) This tract, written in July 1816, was again published in Tracts in Burmese, vol. 1 (1860) (8) and included four chapters: "Historic," "Didactic" (or "Practical"), "Preceptive," and "Devotional." Its English translation was published in The Life of Adoniram Judson. (9)

Judson wrote "The Golden Balance" in March 1829. (10) This tract compared Christianity and Burmese Theravada Buddhism in order to show that the former was the better and a true religion. It was included in two collections of tracts in Burmese: an untitled collection (11) and Tracts in Burmese, vol. 1 (1860). Regardless of place of publication and edition, their contents and structures remain unchanged.

Judson wrote "A View of the Christian Religion" and "The Golden Balance" during the reigns of King Bodawpaya (r. 1782-1819) and King Bagyidaw (r. 1819-1837). The first Anglo-Burman War (1824-1826), in which the Burmans suffered defeat at the hands of the British, preceded the production of "The Golden Balance." It was also the time when successive Burman kings had been patronizing Buddhism, encouraging Pali monastic scholarship and the translation of the Pali canonical texts into the Burmese language. The production of the tracts was made when foreigners were granted religious freedom to worship according to their own customs, but no Burman would be allowed to change her or his religion, or to be anything else than a Buddhist. Judson was writing the tracts to those Burmese Buddhists, particularly Mon and Burman, who only knew Mon and Burmese, and had had very little contact with Christianity. (12)

Though all of Judson's eight tracts are worthy of study, only the two are chosen because (1) they are more theological in nature than the others, which contain mere Burmese translations of certain scriptural texts, and (2) they, in particular "The Golden Balance," contain Judson's view of Burmese Buddhism. There are at least eighty principal Burmese Buddhist terms that Judson uses in the two tracts (13); twenty-four are pure Burmese, and fifty-six are pure and phonetically adapted Pali. …