The Art of Evangelising: Lessons from Buddhism
In our work at ShikshaLokam, we have always seen our role as three-fold – (i) evangelist, (ii) designer, and (iii) orchestrator. We keep learning new lessons and gather new insights from our experiences across these three roles.
Earlier this month, when I was visiting Sarnath – a place that’s steeped in history and spirituality – I found myself contemplating the astounding journey of Buddhism. As I walked through the ancient ruins & the museum, and sat in awe at the site where Buddha once delivered his first sermon, I couldn’t help but wonder how, in an era devoid of modern digital technology, a handful of individuals managed to propagate the idea and spirit of Buddhism to the extent that it reached every corner of the world. It was during this reflective moment that the concept of drawing lessons from Buddhism for the art of evangelism began to take root in my mind. I was born and brought up in Bodh Gaya – the place where Buddha got enlightenment and hence, I grew up listening to the fascinating stories of Buddha and his adventures. These memories from the past and their implications for the present, especially for us as social entrepreneurs, got me thinking and thus began this fascinating exploration.
I share three of these lessons here.
1. Relatable Communication
Buddha often used parables and simple stories to convey profound truths. One of the most famous is the “Parable of the Mustard Seed,” in which a grieving mother, Kisa Gotami, learns the universality of suffering. This simple story illustrated complex spiritual concepts in a way that people from all walks of life could understand. Adaptability to different cultural contexts, e.g. using local languages, local cultural references in storytelling etc., was another facet that caught my attention.
In our life as a Social Entrepreneur, too often, we get so caught up in the nuances of our approach and domain that our words stop making meaning to those around us. By avoiding jargon and esoteric academic language, we can connect with a broader audience. Sharing personal and human stories, like Buddha’s parables, can make our vision more accessible and appealing to diverse groups. In our own work at ShikshaLokam, we started experimenting with new forms of storytelling with the Education Leader Portraits and popular culture pieces like Lesson from Schindler’s List, Wake up Sid etc. These helped unbundle the idea of leadership within the team also, and thus enabled ‘shared seeing’.
2. Strategic Alliances and Collaborations
Buddha encouraged his disciples to travel and spread his teachings, forming a network of advocates. For instance, King Bimbisara of Magadha, a fervent supporter of Buddhism, provided a safe haven for Buddha and his followers. Later, the legendary King Ashoka embraced Buddhism and promoted it across his vast empire. Such strategic alliances with leaders and influencers like Bimbisara and Ashoka weren’t just historical footnotes; they were game-changing partnerships that accelerated the growth of Buddhism.
Similar acceleration can be achieved if we leverage partnerships and collaborations to scale our ideas and amplify our messages. Advocacy is often more powerful when it’s a collective effort. It is in this spirit that the India Education Collaborative is publishing a series of jointly-authored articles and photo blogs on things that matter to us as a community.
Joining forces with like-minded organisations or influential figures can also lead to broader support and acceptance. One can always learn from UNICEF. Globally, it works with nearly 200 Goodwill Ambassadors to increase public awareness of the rights of children and women. This has helped them positively influence government policies and raise funds for the cause.
3. Respectful Dialogue To Meet People Where They Are
Open and respectful dialogue is essential in Buddhism when engaging in evangelism. In Buddhism, the Middle Way teaches followers to seek balance and avoid extremes, promoting a harmonious exchange of ideas. Mindful listening was fundamental in Buddhism. Buddha and his disciples listened to the suffering and needs of others, which helped them understand the perspectives and concerns of those they met. Then, they tailored the teachings to meet people where they were on their spiritual journey. This personalised approach allowed him to connect with a diverse audience.
In our work, we often ask ourselves whether our designs are emerging from the true ‘cares and concerns’ of the communities. By listening attentively and valuing others’ perspectives, we – as evangelists – can build bridges of understanding rather than walls of division. Chaupal is a great example of how Goonj facilitates open dialogue on topics of dignity and development. Unbundle is a similar space hosted by ShikshaLokam that aims to enable shared seeing.
Clearly, Buddhism, with its rich history and timeless wisdom, offers a treasure trove of lessons towards effective evangelism. As I continue my exploration of the profound teachings of Buddhism and their application in the contemporary world of social entrepreneurship and evangelism, I invite you to share your thoughts and insights. I’m sure, together, we can come up with a list of such practical lessons and ideas that will enable us to be better evangelisers of our own missions.