The Buddha’s teachings were not easy to understand. And yet, millions of people from vastly different cultures adopted these teachings as their own. All without a single religious war.

I mean, think about it: when was the last time you listened to two parties debate anything without it devolving into a shouting match?

How do you set about convincing someone to listen to what you say when their default mode is defensive?

You could disarm them.

The earliest Buddhist iconography showed the Buddha with his hands up, close to the body, palms facing outward. The pose should be familiar to anyone who has watched a police procedural. Put your weapons down and hands up. In fact, the pose is known to sculptors as the abhaya or fearlessness pose.  Do not fear me, the Buddha says.

You could also show people that you’re willing to meet them halfway and put forth your ideas in terms that are relevant to them.

When the early Buddhist missionaries were proselytising among illiterate peasants, they didn’t even try to explain theological concepts like Nirvana. These would have been incomprehensible anyhow to people who were still worshipping fertility goddesses. Imagine explaining quantum physics to Kim Kardashian’s followers.

Instead, the Buddhists told stories like the following:

There once lived a wicked nature spirit. She had five hundred children of her own but would still eat the newborn babies in her village. The villagers complained to the Buddha, who hid her favourite child. She searched for her child everywhere only to find him with the Buddha. The Buddha showed her the error of her ways, and she repented. She also entrusted her five hundred children to the local Buddhist monastery, where they were clothed, fed and educated, inspiring the other women of the village to do the same.1

Having convinced the villagers of the material benefits of conversion, the Buddhists made a good faith concession by incorporating figures of these attractive native deities in their temples, giving them a place of honour on the outer walls (but no further).

guandi in buddhist temple
Guan Yu Protecting the Buddha.

Finally, you could get the mother of all celebrity endorsements.

In China, when Confucian conservatives began to attack “the Buddhist faith as foreign and corrupt, [the Buddhists sought] to establish one of the great heroes of Chinese culture as a devout follower and protector.”2 It would be as if the Republicans claimed JFK as one of their own.

The hero in question was the historical figure of Guan Yu.  The story goes that one night, the headless ghost of Guan Yu appeared to a Buddhist monk deep in meditation and demanded that he help him find his head. The monk reminded the warrior of all the victims he himself had decapitated and explained to him the logic of karmic retribution. Guan Yu was deeply impressed. He became a student of the monk and a protector of the Buddhist faith.

And just like that, the foreign wasn’t so foreign anymore.