Was blind, but now I see.

2 : 13 December 2003


We invite you to support this ministry. Contributions in support of this Ministry are tax-deductible. Kindly send your support to
Bethany International
6820 Auto Club Road, Suite A
Bloomington, MN 55438.
Please write Thirumalai's Ministry in the memo column.



SEND YOUR ARTICLES FOR PUBLICATION IN Christian Literature and Living.
  • E-mail your articles and book-length reports to or send it by regular mail to:
    M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
    6820 Auto Club Road #320
    Bloomington, MN 55438 USA
  • Your articles and booklength reports should be written, preferably, following the MLA Stylesheet.
  • The Editorial Board has the right to accept, reject, or suggest modifications to the articles submitted for publication, and to make suitable stylistic adjustments. High quality, academic integrity, ethics, and morals are expected from the authors and discussants.

Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai

A Friend of the Tibetan People

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, 'Your God reigns!' Isaiah 52:7


Tibet is an isolated and mysterious land that seems to be one of the only places on earth capable of resisting foreign influence. Only in the last fifty years or so have many foreigners been able to visit the land referred to as "the roof of the world". It is located right in the midst of the Himalayan mountain range making it a very harsh environment. Not only the extreme environment but also the Tibetan's strong ties to Buddhism and a strong sense of independence have served to isolated this land from foreign influences, including the Gospel.

Tibet is unique geographically, culturally, and politically. It is referred to as the "rooftop of the world" because it rests in a plateau of the Himalayan Mountains with an average height between 13,000 and 16,000 feet. The mountain passes are even higher and the tallest peaks are around 29,000 feet. This extreme elevation makes for very harsh conditions. The sun is very intense, yet while your skin is burning in the sun, you might be freezing in the shade. The overall temperatures are very cold and there is not much rain. Many villages lack the water needed to grow enough food to sustain them. For this reason many Tibetans are nomadic, taking long yak caravans to trade salt for wheat and barley. They live out in the elements and move where they need to in order to survive. There are an estimated 2,500,000 to 6,500,000 hearty inhabitants of this ruthless land.


Although the conditions are rough and the temperatures cold the people are generally very warm and hospitable. This is a strange paradox in that foreigners were for a long time forbidden and definitely not welcome, but in a way the Tibetans duty of hospitality pushed them to somewhat welcome travelers when they did arrive. Although, most of the time travelers were denied at the borders, before they even made it in the country. Travelers were always met with mixed reactions depending on what region of Tibet they were in or whether they were with the common people or the Buddhist leaders. The people are very superstitious and the spirit world is a very real part of everyday life.


Long before Tibet embraced the form of Buddhism, which is now called Tibetan Buddhism, they were attracted to the local religion of Bon. This was a shamanistic, animistic, religion whose followers devoted most of their time trying to achieve a better afterlife for the dead. There were many rituals done by the priests, which included burying riches with the dead and holding ceremonies to ensure their safe arrival in the afterlife. There is one account from a journalist for Readers Digest, who snuck into one of these Bon rituals in the 1940's. He described it as the priest in a circle chanting. Their eyes appeared to be glazed over as they were in a trance. They were summoning the king of hell to appear before them and they would do battle with him. If they lost, they all died and chaos would reign for the next year, but if they won, the Tibetan people would live in relative peace for that year. This was a very oppressive folk religion that kept the people in fear; this is probably one of the reasons most Tibetans left Bon for Buddhism.


Nepali and Chinese princesses, who were devout Buddhists, married the Tibetan King, Srongtsen Gampo, supposedly introduced Buddhism to Tibet. This was in the seventh century but it wasn't until 750 AD that Buddhism was more formally introduced. This happened when the successor of King Srongtsen Gampo invited Padmasambhava, an Indian monk, who founded a Buddhist monastery near Lhasa to come to Tibet. The new religion didn't grow for about a century under the suppression of Bon. It wasn't until Atisa, another Indian monk, arrived in 1042 and unified the priesthood that Buddhism started to grow. This form of Buddhism caught on so well it came to be called Tibetan Buddhism. To be Tibetan is to be Buddhist. It is so much a part of a Tibetan's life that to abandon his Buddhist faith he almost has to abandon his identity as a Tibetan. Most Tibetans now seek to gain merit in order to escape the seemingly endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. This is a very religious life without much hope of ever making it to Nirvana. Before Chinese persecution in the 1960's, around one fifth of all Tibetans lived in lamaseries.


Although Tibet is now Buddhist it never fully eradicated Bon, it just assimilated it. So now for the common people their Buddhism is very mixed with the animistic practices of Bon. The practice of Bon seeks help in the immediate things in life where Buddhism looks beyond to Nirvana. For this reason the common people will often go to a shaman to get help with crops or disputes in everyday life. Both religions are very spiritual, practicing lots of magic. There are reports of monks who levitate, walk on water, dissolve there own bodies into nothingness, and even create a hallucination of themselves that can appear to others. This highly ritual and "spiritist" religion seems to be very resistant to the Gospel.


The Gospel was first introduced to Tibet by a Franciscan monk, Odoric of Pordenone, the first European visitor to Lhasa. He traveled through Lhasa in 1327 where he supposedly set up a mission. He has written comparing the Tibetan's religion to their religion in Rome. They have a head figure like the Pope, monasteries, and celibate monks who chant. In 1624, Antonio de Andrade, a Portuguese Jesuit, wrote a letter, which is the first written information we have from a European about Tibet. Two years after him two more Jesuits, Grueber and d'Orville, stayed in Tibet for two months. In 1715, two Jesuits, Desideri and Freyre, made a trip to Lhasa and Freyre ended up staying until 1729. This was possibly the longest time spent in Tibet by a missionary to that point.

Around the time Freyre left Tibet, the Capuchins founded a mission that lasted until 1760. A Capuchin monk, Orazio della Penna di Billi, wrote an account of Tibet some time before 1760. This is not a complete history of the early missionaries in Tibet but it gives us an idea how sporadic the missions where and how difficult it was to live and stay in Tibet.


Most early missionaries were met with failure as they tried to introduce the Gospel to Tibet. Freyre, the Jesuit, lived in Lhasa for fourteen years without seeing much fruit from his service. He was obliged to leave on account of the Capuchin monks who had founded a mission. The Capuchin monks had a long stay in Lhasa, thirty years, but they also had few converts before they were driven out by the Tibetans.

From this time in 1760 there were no more missionaries in Tibet until 1844 when Lazarists Huc and Gabet, traveled to Lhasa for a visit. The missionaries were not well received and met much resistance to the Gospel; especially form the Lamas and Monks in the monasteries. Many more missionaries traveled to Tibet and were met with just as much, if not more resistance as the earlier ones.

Dozens of missionaries traveled to Tibet in the 19th century and dozens of them were expelled from Tibet in the nineteenth century. The missionaries that were expelled got off easy because a handful of others were killed; probably by stoning, being sewn into a wet yak skin and left out in the sun to be crushed to death, or being thrown into a pit to starve to death.


Finally, at the beginning of the twentieth century the Catholic Church saw some substantial fruits from centuries of labor. The Bishop of Tiniade took up residence at Ta-Tsien-lu in 1897. By 1910 the mission included, 21 European priests, 2407 Catholics, and 600 catechumens. This church was also heavily persecuted but was planted nonetheless.

Missionaries were the first European scholars in Tibet. All linguistics and translation work was done by missionaries. A couple examples are the Jesuit Hippolito Desideri and the Capuchin Francesco Orazio della Penna. Hippolito Desideri wrote the first Christian Tibetan liturature. These were two apologetic works, one against the belief that everybody could be saved by his own religion and the other was against the transmigration of souls (1716-21). Orazio della Penna translated Cardinal Bellarmine's, "Christian Doctrine" and Thurolot's "Treasure of Christian Doctrine." He also compiled the first Tibetan dictionary, containing 35,000 words in Tibetan characters. There were many other translations, either from a European language to Tibetan or even Tibetan works into a European language. For example, Orazio della Penna also translated, "History of the life and works of Shakiatuba, the restorer of Lamaism", "Three roads leading to perfection", "On transmigration and prayer to God", from Tibetan to Italian.


The largest translation work done was by far the translation of the Bible into Tibetan. The story of this translation is quite dramatic and one can truly see God's hand in the process, as well as evil forces that opposed the translation. This story can be found in Allan Maberly's book, God Spoke Tibetan, I will just cover some of the basics here.

Two Moravian Missionaries, Dr. A.W. Heyde and Mr. Pagel were called by God to take the Gospel to Tibet. They spent many years just traveling, trying to get into the country, without any luck. Finally they found a small Tibetan community, nestled in a beautiful valley below the towering Himalayas. The little community in Luba Valley was just outside the Tibet border and therefore it wasn't a problem for the missionaries to settle their. Tempu Gergan was the owner of the land and the leader of the community. The missionaries decided to stay there, learn Tibetan, and translate the Bible into the language. Tempu Gergan agreed to let them stay there and even to help them translate.

This project of translation proved harder than anyone had expected. The first problem was learning Tibetan but a bigger problem was deciding what dialect to write in. Finally the missionaries and Tempu Gergan decided on a classical Tibetan that was used in monasteries. After several years the missionaries and Tempu Gergan finished the translation of the Gospel of John. It was a long and tedious undertaking, it was difficult to find words for things that would not convey a different meaning to a Tibetan, but finally they were finished with the first step.

They had the Gospel printed and distributed many but it didn't have much affect because it was difficult for the common Tibetan to understand. Tempu Gergan's son Sonam could not even understand the translation. Soon after this translation, Tempu Gergan died leaving the missionaries without translation help and as long as it took to translate the one book of John, it would take several lifetimes to translate the whole Bible. Dr. Jaeschke, who joined the missionaries also attempted but failed. Dr. Francke also joined the team and revised the NT, which was a little clearer but still didn't express the Gospel in a clear and understandable way. It seemed impossible to translate one Bible that most Tibetan could clearly understand and since the language was so difficult the work took a long time.


Sonam Gergan was always interested in the teachings of Jesus and after his father died, he was baptized as a follower of Christ and changed his name to Yoseb. He then left for Bible school in India and did very well. After returning home Yoseb decided to take on the translation of the Tibetan Bible. He wanted to give it "legs" to go into Tibet and reach people with the words of God. One day when he was walking he became tired in the heat of the day and sat down in the shade of a little lamasery. As he listened to the lama inside read from a prayer book, he realized that was it, the dialect he needed. It was a forgotten, old, very simple Tibetan dialect that had good words for the difficult translations like, God, prayer, and other difficult words. It was a simple dialect that most Tibetans could understand. Strangely the old Lama gave Yoseb the book and he used it to help make the first full translation of the Bible. This work was completed in 1935; it took him 27 years.

This was not the end of the struggle to give "legs" to the scriptures. They struggled for years attempting to print the translation work but ran into problem after problem. They could not print it in India so it had to be mailed to England. Then World War II broke out and the printing was delayed. The manuscripts were almost blown up by a bomb that landed just feet away from where they were stored but did not go off. They were returned to India but could not be printed on the paper they were on, so the printers made a special kind of paper for them to be re-written on. So, the manuscripts went back to Yoseb to be re-copied. They were sent into the mountains and several trips failed. Finally five days before Yoseb died and ninety years after Dr Heyde and Mr. Pagel first took on the work, the Tibetan Bible was printed in a dialect that Tibetans could understand. The Gospel was in Tibetan!


Around the same time as the translation works were taking place on the Indian border of Tibet, the Christian and Missionary Alliance was working hard to reach Tibetans from the Chinese border. The Christian and Missionary Alliance had been working in China for decades but now at the turn of the twentieth century they were trying to reach Tibetans with the Gospel. The Alliance's first major missions base was in Labrang, Tibet. This is a city, situated in a valley with the mountains high on all sides. Labrang was also one of the religious capitals of Tibet with a very large monastery and up to 3,000 monks.

It is interesting how the missions base was founded and able to stay in Labrang for almost thirty years. It was made possible, starting in 1919, when Moslem troops were stationed in Labrang. The missionaries already got along pretty well with the Moslems because in a way they were both outcasts in this land of so much idol worship and polytheism. They had the common bond of worshiping only one God.

In this time of fighting in Labrang, the missionaries also won the hearts of the Tibetans with their loving service to the wounded and anyone in need. They were so respected by both sides that everyone would protect them, even when the missionaries were caught in the crossfire of a battle. The Moslems won and the missionaries continued their service to the suffering Tibetans.

Finally when the Chinese took over, and Tibet was basically in control again, the missionaries were highly respected and held a position of great influence in the community. So, in this amazing way the Christian and Missionary Alliance found a strong footing in Labrang and was able to share the Gospel in both a practical and verbal way.


Even though the base was in Labrang for almost thirty years they still did not see a lot of strong converts. There were a few here and there but those individuals would suffer a lot in the community. The Tibetans in this religious capital were so steeped in Buddhism they could not understand the Gospel that was preached to them. Many of them accepted Jesus as just another Buddha out of hundreds. So, after thirty years of service and a semi-successful ministry, the missionaries were finally forced to leave when the communists took over in 1949.


It is possible that there has been more success reaching Tibetans with the Gospel in the last ten years than in the rest of the history of missions in Tibet. Although, all of the efforts of the first missionaries and the lifetime labors of many believers laid the foundation and planted the seeds that are a big part of the harvest that is to come. Without the years spent translating the Tibetan Bible, we would have no scriptures to give the Tibetans in our current ministries.

There are now new translations being worked on that should be more accurate and readable. And, while the Tibetan church is still small, it is there and it is growing. There is a Roman Catholic Church in Yanjing, southeastern Tibet with a two hundred year history. It has around six hundred members. There are also small pockets of evangelical meetings rising. The largest one is in the Gansu province and is reported, by the reliable Three-self church, to have two hundred members. There are also unconfirmed reports of several small house churches in Lhasa and around Tibet.

In March 1998, Christian Communications Ltd (Hong Kong) reported that: "In a certain region in Tibet the Gospel has made progress in recent years. The number of people meeting has increased from several dozen to over 5,000, and there are more than forty meeting-points. There are more than one hundred co-workers involved in church work."

These numbers do not sound reasonable to me and I am not sure how reliable this is, though many Han Chinese that live in Tibet are coming to Christ. Actually many of the missionaries working and living in Tibet right now are Chinese. Praise the Lord that so many Chinese are coming to Christ but the work is still slow with the Tibetans.

For safety reasons it is hard to find information on current missions work going on in Tibet. There were many Christian humanitarian groups, along with doctors, and teachers working in Tibet. There are also many more working with Tibetans outside of Tibet. Over half of all Tibetans live outside the Tibetan Autonomous region. In these pockets of Tibetan communities, there are small house churches growing. This is encouraging considering the lack of fruit throughout the history of Tibetan missions. I believe the Lord is raising up missionaries to bring in the harvest that is ripe in Tibet.


There are probably many reasons why the history of mission in Tibet has been so unsuccessful. One is because of the extreme climate and landscape of Tibet. For a long time there was no way to get into Tibet but by foot, through 17,000 foot mountain passes with snow, frigid weather, desolate landscape, and unwelcoming Tibetan guards. This is not climate that most people could survive in.

Another reason is that the Tibetans were so set against allowing foreigners into their country. If missionaries would get in, the Tibetans would drive them right back out.

Probably the strongest factor is the spiritual darkness that has such a stronghold on the land. "The Roof of the World" seems to be shrouded in a thick darkness that does not allow the light to shine. The Tibetan people are totally immersed in Tantric Buddhism that permeates all areas of life. If they are going on a trip, the Lama must visit and determine what dates are the safest to travel. If someone is sick, the Lama comes to chant over that person. Oracles are consulted to see what will come in the future.

This Buddhism is also mixed with the ancient animistic beliefs of the people. Tibetans have always been very spiritual, superstitious, and involved in spirit worship and magic. An article of the OMF website says this about the Tibetans' resistance to the Gospel,

One key reason must be that the Tibetan world-view and pattern of thought is steeped in Lama Buddhism, which is opposed to the Biblical Gospel. Christian spiritual vocabulary is largely meaningless to the Tibetan. For instance, if you try to share with him the necessity of "being born again" he will automatically transpose the idea to mean re-incarnation. Tibetan religion revolves around the making of merit -- the antithesis of the Gospel of grace.


The tool for the future of missions in Tibet must be prayer. There is no way these people will turn from their spirit-strongholds and fully embrace Christ by any amount of human effort. It will only be by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit that God's light will break through the darkness and free Tibetans from their enslavement to the gods of Buddhism.

This is probably the reason for the more recent success of mission in Tibet. There are many people praying for this people group. God is also calling more missionaries to this place that is most literally "the ends of the earth". This growing group of missionaries is easier able to access Tibet as well.

Since Tibet has come under control of Communist China, I believe it has also become more open to foreigners, although it is still tough to get in for a very long period of time. There are many tourists traveling to Tibet now and you can just catch a plane to Lhasa, although the rest of the roads in Tibet are still pretty primitive.

As over half of Tibetans live outside of Tibet missionaries are able to work with these people in safer environments. We must pray that these Tibetans will receive Christ and take his Gospel back into Tibet. Plus, as the Chinese church is rapidly growing, Chinese Christians are taking the Gospel west to Tibet.


While there is a seven hundred year history of missions in Tibet and still only a handful of believers, the harvest is ripe. The Tibetan church is growing and so is the missions force to reach them. The church must pray for the Lord to free Tibetans from their darkness, to reveal himself to them, and give understanding of something that is so radically different from their understanding of the spirit world and afterlife. We should pray for an outcome like the prophet Isaiah talks about in Chapter 25, verses 6-8:

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine-the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people form all the earth.


Ekvall, Robert. Gateway To Tibet. Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications Inc.

Maberly, Allan. God Spoke Tibetan. Orange, CA: Evangel Bible Translators.


A Friend of the Tibetan People
c/o Christian Literature and Living