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Copyright for the journal © 2005
M. S. Thirumalai
EVANGELISM AMONG THE TIBETAN BUDDHISTS
M. S. Thirumalai
TIBETAN BUDDHISTS FROM A VARIETY OF NATIONS AND NATIONALITIES
Tibetan Buddhists belong to a variety of nationalities, although they are mainly from Tibet. Other nations in which Tibetan Buddhism is practiced include China (Ganshu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces), Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, India (the states of Himachal Pradesh Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in India, major Tibetan settlements in India specially carved out for the Tibetan exiles, Indian cities in which Tibetan exiles are settled for the last fifty years or more), Pakistan-held Kashmir, and the Vajrayana communities in the United States and other Western nations.
CONTENTS OF THIS BOOKLET
This booklet introduces the readers to aspects of Tibetan Buddhism and how we could give the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Tibetan Buddhists around the world, mainly in North America. The following topics are briefly dealt with in this booklet.
- Native Tibetan People Groups and New Members
- Major Schools or Traditions within Tibetan Buddhism and on the
Role of Dalai Lama
- The American Scene
- The Shamphala Model
- Support from the Entertainment Industry and People of Status
- Tibetan Buddhism's Impact on Ordinary Americans
- Support Groups and the Flourishing Channel of Pulications
- Help from the Academics
- The Unintended Benefit of Chinese Occupation
- Structure and Function of the Network of Practice Centers
- The Resettlement Projects in India,Nepal, and the United States
- Contacts with India - The Chinese Experiment
- Real Autonomy or Real Independence?
- Ordinary Tibetans in America - How Do They Respond to Life in the United States?
- Our Context -- How to Give the Gospel To Tibetans in America?
- Vajrayana Belief
- Ngundro and Other Meditation Practices
- Ordinary Tibetan Buddhists
- Amulets and Other Prayer Mechanisms; On Demons, etc.
- Tantism; Sexual Metaphors, etc.
- Substance Abuse
- Folk Stratum
- Early Missions in Tibet and Missionary Thought
- Tibetan Evangelism -- A Story of Hope Deferred
- Evangelism among the Nomads
- Miracles, Signs, and Wonders and Spirit Possession
- Evangelizing Tibetan Buddhists
NATIVE TIBETAN PEOPLE GROUPS AND NEW MEMBERS
The term Tibetan actually refers to a number of related people groups, with each group speaking a variant of Tibetan language. Linguistically speaking, Tibetan language consists of five dialect areas: Amdo, Kham, Southern Tibetan, Central Tibetan, and Western Tibetan. It may be safe to assume that each of these dialect areas represents at least a major people group. However, there also a good number of other people groups, who may not really be speaking Tibetan in the sense of any mutual intelligibility between their own speech and the primary dialects mentioned above, and yet traditionally they view themselves to be part of the Tibetan phylum or stock.
All these groups are spread in China, Mongolia, Nepal, India, and in parts of Kashmir held by Pakistan. Amdo (China, 800,000), and Kham (China, 1,446,000) are two major people groups with the former having about a million people, and the latter with nearly one and a half million people. Some of the other people groups that have more than 100,000 people are as follows: Atuentse (China, 590,000), Baltistani Bhotia (Pakistan, 270,000), Purik Bhotia (India, 135,000), Purik (China, 185,000), Purik (Pakistan, 370,000), Chiang (China, 130,000), Jiarong (China, 130,000), Ladakhi (100,000), and Tibetan - Lhasa (India, 100,000).
The figures are only approximate. There are many smaller people groups in the Himalayan regions in India that view them to be from the Tibetan stock, and that practice Tibetan Buddhism. The Himalayan region in India and Nepal may be viewed as a long chain of communities most of which view them to be related to Tibetan group. Not all these groups are devoted to the idea of aligning themselves or organizing themselves into a single nation, Tibet.
Historically, Lhasa in Southern Tibet has always been the center of Tibetan religion, culture, government, and education. However there were other centers also in Tibet that flourished with power and prestige. Classical Tibetan is the language of choice for Tibetan Buddhist work and religious practices. However, there is a trend now to write more in the colloquial language, and this has helped the development of a modern Tibetan dialect. Still, total mutual intelligibility between the dialects is not achieved. A lot has changed since the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Exposure to Chinese and English has widened the nuances adopted in the Tibetan language both at the colloquial and written levels.
The members of the Vajrayana communities in the United States and other Western nations may be divided into two broad categories: the first group consists mostly of Westerners. The second group consists of a substantial Tibetan population, who are recent immigrants to these nations. There is also a third group of people who may not be practitioners of Vajrayana, but are heavily involved in the Tibetan Movement, and who have favorable inclinations toward Buddhism for various reasons.
Tibetan or Vajrayana Buddhism, thus, is not identical to the Tibetan people group. At the same time, we cannot ignore the strong bonds that exist between Tibetan ethnic identity and Tibetan or Vajrayana Buddhism. Indeed the spiritual and political interests of Tibetan or Vajrayana Buddhists somewhat coincide naturally.
MAJOR SCHOOLS WITHIN TIBETAN BUDDHISM
There are four distinctive major schools in Tibetan Buddhism: the Gelugpa, Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya. Within each school there are different lineages which follow some illustrious lamas' teaching. The traditions of the teacher within a particular school have great impact on the lives of the followers of Tibetan Buddhism. To these four major traditions, we may include a fifth one, Bon, the indigenous religion that is closely connected to Buddhism and that plays an important role in the beliefs of all Tibetans.
THE GELUGPA TRADITION
The term gelug means "virtuous persons," and pa stands for "school." The followers of this school are sometimes called "Yellow Hats," because of the yellow robes they wear. The Gelugpa sect or order has been the dominant Buddhist practice in Tibet for many centuries. Tson-kha-pa (1357-1419) is considered to be its founder. This sect is considered to be more an intellectual group. Tson-kha-pa wrote an exposition of Atisa's (972-1054 A.D.) Bodhipathapradi:pa: (Stages on the Path to Buddhahood), and this exposition was called The Great Exposition of the Stages on the Path. This work lists and describes the rituals and related items to carry out these rituals. Tsongkhapa wrote several texts. The Dalai Lama, who holds both the spiritual and political offices together in his person, is considered to be the head of this sect or order. The Dalai Lama was given the authority to rule over Tibet in the seventeenth century during the period of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682).
In the Gelugpa tradition, there is a great emphasis on religious instruction, ethics, and monastic discipline. There are more monks in this order than in any other order of Tibetan Buddhism. The order focuses on the study of the texts (sutra) as well as the practice of rituals or tantra.
The monks are trained or instructed in dialectical debates and through such debates deeper analysis of the texts and practices are imparted. Monks are instructed on a variety of topics that cover the study of perfection of wisdom, the philosophy of the Middle Way, cognition (apperception of the Buddha), phenomenology (generally speaking, experiencing visions), and other monastic disciplines including meditation.. A monk may take over 15 years to complete the study.
This order focuses on an intellectual pursuit. The founder of this order, Tsongkhapa, declared that there are three aspects of the Path, namely, renunciation, bodhicitta (the mind of the Buddha), and a correct understanding of what nirvana and parinirvana mean. Universal compassion and altruism are emphasized as an integral part of the way of life.
This order has detailed compendium of rules and precepts for the ordained monk and those who are training to be monks. The Gelugpa tradition established many monastic instruction centers throughout Tibet, and this helped the Tradition to become the most influential of all the orders in Tibet. In addition, as already pointed out, political power was also vested in the Gelugpa order to a large extent.
THE DALAI LAMA
The Dalai Lama is not the only religious leader in Tibetan Buddhism. However, historically the person of Dalai Lama incorporated the spiritual and political leadership. The title Dalai Lama means "ocean of wisdom." The Dalai Lama is believed to be a manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and becomes a helper and mediator for all in the process of attaining nirvana. Bodhisattva decided not to enter nirvana when he reached that stage in order to help others in the process of attaining nirvana. According to Tibetan Buddhism, Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara chose to take rebirth in order to help others in their journey toward nirvana.
The emphasis is on attaining the indivisible union of bliss and emptiness. Several deities such as Guhyasamaja, chakrasamvara, Yamantaka, and Kalachakra are also worshiped.
The Gelugpa tradition is widely prevalent in various settlements in India and Nepal, and is an important tradition in the Western nations as well.
THE KAGYU TRADITION
While the Dalai Lama is more widely known among Americans, the kagyu school, which is somewhat independent of the gelug school, is more developed in the United States. In the United States, the lamas of the kagyu school arrived earlier than those from the other schools. The worship and instruction in Mahamudra is a special feature of this school. Instruction in Mahamudra seeks to delve into a recognition of mind. "Gazing intently into the empty sky, vision ceases; Likewise, when mind gazes into mind itself, The train of discursive and conceptual thought ends. And supreme enlightenment is gained" (a verse taken from a great sage of Kagyu lineage, Tilopa's (988-1069) mahamudra instruction).
This school encourages the followers to understand their mind by reflecting upon it. The followers are told that by this reflection they will be able to realize that, "All phenomena are the mind's magical play. As for the mind, there is no mind! The mind is empty of essence. Empty and unimpeded, it can appear as absolutely anything - Analyzing excellently, may we cut through all superimpositions about the ground."
The six yogas of Naropa (1016-1100) are the center piece of Kagyu school. These are as follows: the yoga of inner heat, the yoga of inner radiance/clear light, the yoga of the illusory body, the yoga of the intermediate state (bar-do), the yoga of consciousness transference, and the yoga of resurrection.
THE NYINGMA TRADITION
The Nyingma tradition is said to have originated from the teachings of Padmasambhava (817 A.D.?). According to the Tibetan Buddhist belief, Padmasambhava came to Tibet and subdued the evil forces that hampered the spread of Buddhism. He is called Rinpoche in Tibetan. He is said to have transformed the evil spirits to be in conformity with Buddhism. His disciples became great scholars and practitioners in Buddhism. They were able to travel on beams of light, revive the dead, had extraordinary intuition about things and events. They could fly into the sky at will; they were great mind readers, and had many other magical powers. Tantra practice is the main focus of this school.
It is claimed that Padsambhava hid treasures of tantra in various scriptures to be revealed in due course when the time is appropriate by various masters. These were hidden in images, ritual articles, and scriptures. Transmission of such treasures through practice is to be carried out in great secrecy.
Oral transmission through initiation and secret practice dominate the lineages that sprang in this tradition. Revelation through individual masters thus becomes a very important characteristic of this tradition. There is an emphasis on eliminating ordinary perception and acquiring sacred vision and divine pride (Mahayoga), using the body as a vehicle to realize or to become aware of "primordial" state, and ultimately transcend all time, activity, and experience.
There have been questions about its origin and Buddhist background. Much similarity is found between this tradition and Zen Buddhism. Recent exponents of this tradition in the United States tend to minimize the Indian roots of this tradition, and even claim that the ideas of this tradition predate the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet from India.
THE SAKYA TRADITION
The Sakya tradition was started by Khon Konchok Gyelpo (1034-1102). This tradition traces its origin to the teachings of Virupa, an Indian yogi. The term Sakya means in Tibetan Grey Earth and it was the name given to the monastery founded by Khon. This tradition focuses on the Path and Its Fruits pursuing which a practitioner reaches the hevijra. It is explained that "he" represents Great Compassion, and "vajra" represents wisdom.
According to a classic text, this tradition teaches,
"Gazes, how to attract, the Secret Sign Language, how to paralyze, how to drive away. It teaches the correct method of generating the Yoginis, their location, and their source. It is proficient in the science and technique of the correct method of manifesting the deities. ... Men are
bound by the bondage of existence and are liberated by understanding the nature of
This Tradition holds that samsara and nirvana cannot be separated. Through meditation one realizes the inseparability between the two.
THE BON TRADITION
There is a love-hate relationship between Bon, the Tibetan indigenous religious tradition, and Buddhism. Persecution of the followers of Bon could not eliminate this tradition. Buddhism ultimately has come to accommodate Bon in some special ways. Bon also accepts the power of Buddhism as the dominant belief system among the Tibetans. The Tibetan exile has given a lease of life to the Bon tradition. The Dalai Lama, unlike many of his predecessors, approves of the independent practice of Bon, and recognizes it as the indigenous religious belief even while adhering to Buddhism.
Tönpa Shenrab is considered to be the founder of the Bön religion. He was born in a mythical land; some have identified this as Mount Kailash. A counter-clockwise swastika is one of the prominent symbols of this religion.
There are five major doctrinal statements: the White water doctrine deals with esoteric matters; the Black Water doctrine deals with magic, funeral rites, ransom rituals, etc.; the Land of Phan doctrine deals with monastic rules, etc.; the Divine guide doctrine teaches attainment of perfection; and the Treasury doctrine deals with the essentials of the above categories.
There are Ways or Paths followed: The Way of Prediction that deals with divination by lots, astrology, ritual, and foreboding; The Way of Illusion; The Way of the Visual World (psychophysical nature of the world); The Way of Existence that deals with funeral and death rituals; The Way of the Laity; The Way of the Monks (monastic rules); The Way of the Primordial Sound (repetitive recitation for enlightenment); The Way of Primordial Shen (master-student relation to receive instruction on tantra); The Way of Supreme Doctrine (the doctrine of great perfection).
Bon is not a spurious cult. It has an elaborate system of rituals and beliefs, and is followed by many along with Buddhism. In the past Bon was suppressed, but now there is a greater appreciation of the fact that it is widely prevalent and practiced by the laity.
As far as I know, there is no Bon seminary or cultural center in the United States. However, my surmise is that the Tibetan population in the West continues to practice Bon as part of their religious routine.
Among the Buddhism-oriented Westerners, there is not much respect shown to this religious tradition. It is possible that the religious dance adopted by Bon may become attractive to the Buddhist-oriented Westerner sooner or later. The Dalai Lama, as already mentioned, sees this tradition as representing the "indigenous source of Tibetan culture, and acknowledging the major role it has had in shaping Tibet's unique identity." In other words, Bon has become part of Tibetan Buddhism.
It is important to have some fundamental knowledge of the theology and practices of each of these schools. But, in my opinion, such information is not really relevant for shaping our evangelism methods, because there is so much intermingling between the various schools in practice among the monks as well as the laity. Thus, an overall awareness of the existence of various schools and some of their major practices may be necessary, but not an elaborate knowledge of the distinctions between the four or five schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The laity does not really bother about such distinctions, giving loyalty to all the schools as representing Tibetan Buddhism. On the other hand, such distinctions become a big issue among the monks.
THE AMERICAN SCENE
In the United States, people, both Tibetans and Americans, practicing all the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism are found. These traditions have established a network of meditation and ritual centers in several parts of the United States. These centers follow the lineages followed by their founders. Lamas who associated with these schools follow their own lineage, while adhering to the major tenets of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism they belong to. As I already mentioned, it is not clear whether the Bon religion has any center of its own.
American Tibetan Buddhism is largely a network of clubbing together a variety of different centers which may follow their own traditions.
Another important aspect of American Tibetan Buddhism is that, although many new directions have been established, as detailed below, both the Tibetan community and the American adherents of Tibetan Buddhism, continue to maintain their relationships with the Tibetan community in exile in the Indian subcontinent. However, there is not much day-to-day contact between the American adherents of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan immigrants in the United States.
The Kagyu school is represented by a number of centers in the United States. Of these, Shambhala International is a very important institution. The founder of this institution, Trungpa, was trained in both Kagyu and Nyingma traditions. Trungpa arrived in the United States in 1970 after his studies at Oxford University. He was closely associated with the counter-culture movement and became a very popular person. He had excellent communication skills in English.
THE SHAMPHALA MODEL
Trungpa was a monk originally, but renounced his celibacy and was married, which was not unusual even in Tibet. He blended well with the then American pursuit of oriental wisdom. He was very innovative and an audacious thinker for Tibetan Buddhism. His work brought respect and many disciples to Tibetan Buddhism, which, until that time, was considered to be spurious and inferior to the Zen brand of Buddhism. His work in Vermont and Colorado actually prospered well. His doctrine emphasized the cultivation of awakened living.
Trungpa proposed three distinct paths to practice: Nalanda for the cultivation of wisdom through art and culture, which may be developed by a pursuit of photography, or a host of other activities, such as dance, archery, poetry, medical arts, etc; Vajradhatu focuses upon meditation, adopting the ways of Zen and Theravada Buddhism, to suit the needs of students from America; and Shambhala Training (introduction to and practice in ordinary magic, the birth of warriorship, awakened heart, open sky/primordial stroke, and great eastern sun/joining heaven and earth).
The model of Shambhala is often repeated in other lineages when leaders from these lineages established their seminaries/practice centers in America and in western nations. Individual lineages and practice centers choose to highlight their own distinctive procedures.
The practice centers run by the lamas and their American disciples are found in many cities in the United States. Most of these practice centers are not inter-connected with any central organization. However, ministries such as Shambhala Training International coordinate their own brand of practice centers through several levels of supervision. The usual pattern in a practice center is that the lama takes charge of the spiritual side and the American disciples take charge of the non-spiritual administrative and financial side of the operation.
These centers actually cater to the non-Tibetan populations seeking some enlightenment. These may be viewed as meditation stores, open for business with all people.
Tibetan Buddhists on their own continue their daily spiritual routine in their homes and through community-organized festivals and ritual practices, in which hardly any American adherent participates.
SUPPORT FROM THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY AND PEOPLE OF STATUS
In the United States, Tibetan Buddhism has the high-profile support of the entertainment industry, and continues to receive sympathetic treatment from the mainstream news media. The Hollywood movie Lost Horizon (1937) by Frank Capra may be considered an early introduction to Tibet and its mystifying civilization.
Lost Horizon was based on a novel with the same title by James Hilton, which portrayed "a perfect hidden community within the uncharted Himalayas, a land where peace reigns and the inhabitants live for hundreds of years." Although the movie was highly acclaimed, it did not really set the trendy fashion of adoring Tibetans and accepting Tibetan Buddhism as an important alternative. Other strands of Buddhism continued to hold the imagination of the artists, intellectuals, nihilists, et al.
Things have now changed: with the interest in Tibetan Buddhism, this movie, now available in DVD, elicits comments such as the following: "It is more than a fantastic adventure, a romance, or a mere story of enchantment. The concept of a Shangri-la has spiritual and political overtones that seem more relevant to our generation than when it was first released. Gets you thinking about what is really important in life," (a buyer-reviewer in amazon.com). However, the 1990's may be considered the golden age of Tibetan Buddhism in the United States. The support base is still growing.
In the 1990's, powerful and sympathetic treatment of Tibet and its culture and religion was made available through movies such as Red Corner (Richard Gere), Seven Years in Tibet (Brad Pitt), Little Buddha (Keanu Reeves), and Kundun (a sympathetic and glorifying treatment of the story of the Dalai Lama).
Pop singers such as the Beatsie Boys continue to organize concerts in support of the Free Tibet Movement.
Time magazine once ran a cover story on America's fascination with Tibet.
Steven Seagal was recognized as an incarnation (tulku) of a seventeenth century monk by the venerable head of the Nyingma tradition, Penor Rin-poche. When asked about the films of Seagal, which abound in violence, Rin-poche said, "Compassionate beings take rebirth in all walks of life to help others. Any life condition can be used to serve beings and thus, from this point of view, it is possible to be both a popular movie star and a tulku. There is no inherent contradiction in this possibility."
IMPACT ON ORDINARY AMERICANS
Now, Tibet dominates as the main representative of Buddhism for the political and entertainment fields in the USA. The Entertainment industry presents a garbled simplistic version of the complex Tibetan religion, culture, and society with romantic idealism. This is catching the imagination of ordinary people.
Regarding worldwide Buddhist missionary activity, be aware that monks do not declare themselves as missionaries, preaching nirvana; they focus on those who are troubled in their spirit and are seeking peace.
They target individual conversions, and then, when society begins to accept their teaching, they accommodate local practices in order to minimize conflict. This can be easily attested even in the practice centers run by Tibetan monks throughout the United States.
The American converts to Buddhism are greatly enthused by these developments, although some among them consider this a degradation of noble dharma. Buddhist monks throughout history always made accommodation for the local beliefs, and the current trend is no exception to it.
OTHER SUPPORT GROUPS
There is a well-organized network of supporters of Tibet in the United States, such as the U.S. Tibet Committee in New York City, the International Campaign for Tibet committee in Washington, D.C., the Los Angeles Friends of Tibet (LAFT), the Students for a Free Tibet, the International Tibet Independence Movement in Indianapolis, Indiana, the Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington, Indiana, etc.
These groups conduct marches, mail information on Tibet, demonstrate for the freedom of Tibet, and actively promote everything Tibetan. They are joined by politicians who support the cause of Tibet in the United States. These groups also become grounds to recruit adherents to Tibetan Buddhism, or at least make Tibetan Buddhism a respectable religion in the eyes of American public. Still, however, most Americans are baffled and mystified when it comes to understanding Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. Yet the support base for Tibetans and their religion seems to be growing, not dwindling.
The Dalai Lama gets wide publicity for all his activities and utterances. The Dalai Lama is seen as the supreme representative and authority for all Tibetan Buddhists. This has caused some uneasiness among the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism, since theologically the Dalai Lama is seen to be a representative of one of the lineages, with some special recognition. (Conflicts between various schools are reported in Indian newspapers of distinction.) The Dalai Lama's lectures always draw good crowds in the United States, and the initiation ceremony, Kalachakra, attracts huge crowds. He is invited to talk to gatherings of professionals such as doctors and scientists on the topic of inner peace, consciousness, world peace, and human rights often. He enjoys great camaraderie with many leaders from other religions including Christianity. With the Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama's stature has grown higher.
THE FLOURISHING CHANNEL OF PUBLICATIONS
An important aspect of Buddhist activities in America is the flourishing channel of publication for Buddhist literature. Many easy to read manuals have been published for the general public, which describe the meditation and ritual practices. Ethics and morals are highlighted, which often resemble Christian teaching on charity and brotherhood.
When someone reads such literature, he or she gets a feeling that this lineage or religion is noble, and that it speaks truth and universal love. The language of love and peace attracts the young minds and those who are troubled in their spirit, and who have not cared to read such writing in Christian literature. Such literature also gives the impression that what is being said is totally "scientific" and thus could only be true. Pseudo-scientific statements are made, and people with no time and means to verify such statements are easily misled.
HELP FROM THE ACADEMICS
American Tibetan Buddhism, through the pioneering efforts of American academics, who are either Buddhist converts or are greatly inclined toward Buddhism, provides excellent support for the preservation, dissemination, and propagation of Tibetan Buddhist thought and literature in the United States. Religious texts are carefully preserved, translated, and published.
Several leading universities in the United States, such as Columbia University, the University of Virginia, and the University of California at Berkeley may be cited as the leading centers of research and translation.
Early translation of the texts was undertaken by some lamas, but soon their ardent disciples from the West took over this momentous task with unparalleled zeal, enthusiasm, hard work, and devotion to the cause of Tibetan Buddhism. Some leading academics are Robert Thurman (father of Uma Thurman), Jeffrey Hopkins, Richard Hughes Saeger, and Charles S. Prebish. There are many other young and not so young American scholars, whose devotion to Tibetan Buddhism and historical texts have resulted in many projects of preservation, translation, interpretation, and dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism in the United States. They handle the subject matter with great understanding and sympathy, using a guarded language even when the themes and events not ordinarily believable are to be narrated.
One of the projects undertaken needs to be mentioned: the project to publish in translation all the scriptural texts of Tibetan Buddhism has been undertaken by a group, Dharma Publishing in Berkeley, CA. The project aims at publishing a collection of 128 volumes of all the approved or traditionally recognized and revered texts (the Kangyur and Tengyur). When finished this will be one of best ever undertaken projects, it is claimed, on any religious tradition. The Kangyur and Tangyur texts are literally worshipped by the Tibetan Buddhists at the altar. Worshipping them is a meritorious ritual.
Snow Lion Publications located in Ithaca, NY and the Shambhala Publications already mentioned are two leading publishers of Tibetan Buddhism materials in English. Other leading secular publishers are also now in the market.
THE UNINTENDED BENEFITS OF CHINESE OCCUPATION
The Chinese occupation of Tibet has, indeed, helped the continuity of Buddhist research with greater vigor, outside of Tibet, in the United States and in India (South Asia). It has also, unfortunately, reinforced the Tibetan thought that Buddhism and Tibetan identity are integral to one another.
American Tibetan Buddhist scholars are motivated by a desire to preserve the texts and, if possible, re-interpret them in the light of commonly shared values of the modern western society, and then disseminate these in a nice package to the American population.
While the Tibetan does not seem to think that their religion will be destroyed by the Chinese occupation, the American Buddhists seem to think otherwise, and so they are more actively involved in the preservation, translation, and dissemination of Tibetan Buddhist thought.
This is a contrast in world views, but I do seriously believe that the introduction to western education will certainly de-motivate the Tibetan children to delve deeply into their theology and develop it further. At the same time, these children may cling to their religion as a sign of their own identity, with very little enthusiasm for the rituals and other religious practices.
Concerted academic effort, support from powerful persons in the public life, and support from the entertainment industry, all these helped Tibetan Buddhism gain a sympathetic ear among the American people, even as these helped establish Tibetan Buddhism as a distinct Buddhist entity with its own heritage, rituals, and knowledge.
STRUCTURE AND FUNCTION OF NETWORK OF PRACTICE CENTERS
An important dimension of the spread of Tibetan Buddhism in the United States is the network of practice centers. When we read the history of the spread of Buddhism in Asia, we realize that it was the monks, who, both as individuals and as groups, helped to spread the religion among the people. Their unobtrusive living adjacent to the communities began to impact the people.
Remember that originally the monks were not involved in any "productive" or "reformatory" work. Their focus was only on matters 'spiritual." Any worldly work (manual work) or any worldly involvement was seen to be an impediment in the path to nirvana. Practice centers, where meditation is imparted along with Tibetan Buddhist rituals and worldview, take this role in the western world.
The founding monk of the center often lives there in the practice center, and soon gathers around him a set of devoted disciples from among those who enroll to gain some "peace" from their troubles through the meditation practices. Soon the disciples become the pillars of these centers. They are highly devoted to the "cause."
The Vajrayana practice network is to be viewed not simply as a meditation effort, it is indeed a sure route to enlist new believers from among the non-Tibetans.
Practice centers follow a mixed program, balancing between the need to follow strictly the traditions of the lineage, while suitably accommodating those who enroll in these programs. The lamas are greatly helped in this process of accommodation by their American students.
Prayer flags, prayer wheels, butter lamps, etc. in addition to carefully graded steps of Vajrayana meditation bring in an aura of mystery and mysticism and those who enrolled in the program are attracted also by the novelty.
TIBET IS A THEOLOGICAL PROBLEM
From this brief description of current trends, I may suggest that the community that practices Tibetan Buddhism is multi-national and multi-ethnic, sections of which may have interests and goals different from one another. In addition, we also need to keep in mind that Tibet as a political problem is somewhat different from Tibet as a theological problem. Often these two are mixed and we, in this process, tend to get distracted.
THE RESETTLEMENT PROJECTS IN INDIA, NEPAL, AND THE UNITED STATES
An important fact of the Resettlement Project initiated by the 1990 Act of the Congress is that it opened the door for resettlement in the United States for those Tibetans who are in exile in the Indian subcontinent. These Tibetans have already lived in India and Nepal, etc. for many years, if not their entire lives, and acquired many Indian traits. It was easy for the Tibetans to mingle within the Indian milieu consisting of a variety of ethnic groups, cultures, and languages, and a religion that is quite similar to theirs.
Moreover, even though Buddhism is not widely practiced in India, Indians, both Hindus and agnostics, have a very high regard for the Buddha. Indian school curriculum glorifies the Buddha in many ways. This further creates a theologically conducive atmosphere for them in India. Moreover, Indians also see the Tibetans as the "victims" of Chinese aggression, something India herself experienced within a few years of the occupation of Tibet. Indians believe that the "Chinese aggression and occupation" of Indian territories in the winter of 1962 was provoked by the asylum given to the Dalai Lama. But, hardly any Indian regrets that act of courage and generosity extended by Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India.
The elaborate system put in place for the education of Tibetan children (as a government of India official, in the late 70's and early 80's, I had the privilege of advising language requirements and teaching methods in two large Tibetan schools run by the special Board of Education set up for the Tibetan children by the government of India), the generous land grants by those host states that received the exiles, and the freedom Tibetans had for many years even before their exile to India to enter and move to any part of the country for trade, commerce and for gainful employment all have really helped Tibetans to acquire many elements of Indian culture and ways of life.
Many American Christians have great problems in really grasping the implication of this fact. They are not able to see that the Tibetans they come across on the street, indeed, have a close affinity with the Indian ethos. In the minds of these Americans, Tibet, not the real Tibetans they come across, dominates. As of now, I think it is futile if we do not take advantage of this link easily available to us. We need to understand that the immigrant Tibetan population in the United States is not from Lhasa but from Bylakuppe, Dharmasala, Solon, and the metropolitan cities of India. Most of these people may have never even been to Tibet. Their original home is indeed Shangri La for them. The real world is the world of Hindi cinemas, Indian curry, and biriyani, chappati and poories!
CONTACTS WITH INDIA - THE CHINESE EXPERIMENT
Tibet's contacts were with both China and India. Historians point out that "though Tibet's chief cultural contacts were with India up to about 1200, and from then until the present with China," "Tibet's relations with India, on the one hand, and with China, on the other, were on an entirely different basis." Compared with the Indian contacts, the "Chinese cultural influences in Tibet have been superficial, limited for the most part to the cultured way of living of a wealthy minority. Apart from this, ordinary Tibetans and Chinese have nothing in common, and the Indian Buddhism which has penetrated so deep into the Tibetan soul makes a great gulf between the two peoples, which only its eradication might help to remove" (David Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson, A Cultural History of Tibet, Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. Publishers, New York, 1968, p. 159).
This (the eradication of the Indian impact) precisely is what the Chinese Government is trying to do since their occupation of Tibet. They try to accomplish this through various methods, including moving the Tibetan population from one region to another, sending Tibetan people to large Chinese cities, and bringing in the Chinese populations to the traditional Tibetan homeland.
A new generation has already come into existence in Tibet with few contacts with India, and with greater educational, economic, and administrative contacts with China. However, it will be interesting to see how the opening of the Nathu La Pass between the Indian territory of Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet will change the dynamics. China recently agreed to the Indian proposal to begin official trade through land, opening the Nathu La Pass. Contacts with India and Nepal are bound to flourish, but we need to wait and see how this will strengthen the traditional bonds.
THE PARALLELS FOR THE TIBETAN EXPERIENCE IN BUDDHIST HISTORY
The effort of the Chinese Communists to eliminate Buddhism in the consciousness of the Tibetans has many parallels within Buddhist history. Were not the Hindus successful in driving Buddhism from its place of origin by so many dubious means, including the brazen use of violence? However, times have changed, and the changed circumstances bring in more subtle means to eliminate the Buddhist consciousness by the Chinese Communists. Ultimately, the contest for the hearts of Tibetans will be between the Word of God and secularism.
REAL AUTONOMY OR REAL INDEPENDENCE?
The recent statements from the Dalai Lama indirectly recognize the impossibility of Tibet ever becoming an independent nation with full sovereignty. This is a sad development, but something that cannot be avoided, given some of the conflicting records relating to the past history of the "independence" of Tibet. China had a strong central government as the overarching power over all its ethnic groups, both Chinese and non-Chinese. With the dominant vision of Greater China shared by the Chinese as well as the non-Chinese populations in that country, China always assumed that the outlying regions, such as Tibet, were, and are under its suzerainty.
This Greater China idea is not effectively questioned or challenged throughout its history by the subaltern ethnic groups and cultures. Tibet did pose some challenge to this idea, but such challenge was not adequate or forceful enough to make the Chinese power to acquiesce or acknowledge that Tibet is an independent nation.
To what extent the current geopolitical situation is going to change this situation is not clear. In fact, even if the Chinese Communist rule is reversed, that may result in more autonomy to Tibet, but not total independence, because the idea of Greater China is not the creation of the Communists. It had been in existence ages before the Communists took over the rule of China.
THE AMERICAN RESETTLEMENT PROJECT
The lofty and high-sounding initial goals of the Re-settlement Project in the United States such as using the skills of Tibetan migrants for organic produce or stone masonry do not seem to be attractive to the migrants. They seek a living in the cities through jobs which do not demand knowledge-based skills. For example, in the Twin Cities, Tibetans have been joining in good number the low-level jobs in the health industry as drivers, etc.
There is nothing wrong with this development by which Tibetans in the strange land are able to get jobs, live close to one another, and make a community of their own.
What is most important for us interested in giving the gospel is that, in these very early years, we do our best to establish contacts with them so that an opening is available to minister the Word of God to them. Once the communities are "settled," that is, once insulated against the influence of personal contacts at the spiritual level, it becomes harder to lead them to Christ. Yet we must always bear in mind that evangelism is the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we are merely tools in the Comforter's hands. With prayer, fasting, and dependence on the Word of God, we make ourselves available for the Comforter to lead us.
ORDINARY TIBETANS IN AMERICA - HOW DO THEY RESPOND TO LIFE IN THE UNITED STATES?
Like most immigrants to the United States, Tibetans from India and beyond come to the United States by their own choice after much effort. Their migration to the United States and western nations has the additional element of sponsorship from host governments, to begin with. Their entry into the United States is a great miracle; it could never have happened but for some divine intervention, they all vouch. And they are largely happy to be here, although their daily life is full of challenges, sometimes overwhelming. Their hope is for their children, and they look toward a bright future for their children and relatives.
Like their Indian brethren, they also would like to bring their own kith and kin by some means to the United States for a better career and living.
In the case of most Tibetan immigrants, their focus is more on living here than on greatly worrying about what would happen to Tibet. This does not mean that these people do not have any love left for their traditional homeland. But political consciousness, or involvement or aspiration, has always been a matter of only secondary importance. Mythologies, ritualism, pious reverence for lamas, many of whom, in their belief, are the reincarnation of great sentient beings who went before them, daily occult practices, mechanical prayers, and other practices continue to hold sway in their lives inside their homes.
Throughout their history, Tibetans have shown little interest in the world around them; even the great Chinese civilization and the British offer of help with materials and armaments in the early part of the twentieth century did not attract their attention in contrast to Buddhism that came from India. Snellgrove and Richardson aptly remark, "The great miracle of Tibetan civilization was the zeal and competence which they showed for Indian Buddhism in all its varied forms. It has remained throughout their history the one pearl of great price for which they seem to have sacrificed everything else, even their independence as a nation" (David Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson, p. 236).
OUR CONTEXT -- HOW TO GIVE THE GOSPEL TO TIBETANS IN AMERICA?
This is the context in which we need to operate. Will the Tibetans give up their inward looking attitude, and look outward and receive the Gospel? I believe that behind all the outward appearance of calm lies a disturbed soul, seeking God, but how do we attune ourselves with their spirit, and kindle it to receive God's Word?
One would expect a closer relation between American Buddhists and the Tibetan immigrants. But, unfortunately, this is not the case. Until recently, interest in Tibetan Buddhism has not resulted in a closer relationship between ordinary Tibetans and the middle class American Buddhists. Practice centers are geared more toward the American clientele than for the social and economic uplift of the Tibetan immigrants. It is not necessary in Hinduism and Buddhism that interest in religion results in what we call acts of charity toward fellow humans. Seeking merit for one's own nirvana is the focus and this may occasionally lead to acts of charity, but these acts are not the main focus, or channel for attaining nirvana. Rituals play a more crucial role for this purpose.
The relationship between the movements for the freedom of Tibet and ordinary Tibetan immigrants is also not helping the latter to attain a sense of security and guaranteed livelihood for the Tibetan immigrants. Empty words that arouse emotions mostly among the campus groups do not really help the immigrants materially, even though such movements create an atmosphere of sympathy for them.
The academics, who devote their time for conservation, translation, and dissemination of Tibetan Buddhist theology in conjunction with the people of entertainment industry, are more interested in the display of all the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhism and to show that Tibetan Buddhism and Buddhism in general are much closer to modern scientific "truths" than in improving the life of ordinary Tibetans.
Friends of Jesus are friends of all, and thus, are given a special place to help the immigrants following Matthew 25: 35-36.
The gulf between the ordinary Tibetans and the Practice Centers has been noted as a matter of concern by some secular scholars. Tibetan immigrants do not generally attend the ceremonies in these practice centers, and the people enrolled for meditation practice, etc., in these centers hardly have any personal contact with the Tibetan immigrants.
In addition, the Tibetan religion continues to be a mystery to these Americans. They are exposed mainly to a packaged version of the religion, without any contact with the original practitioners of this religion. Furthermore, there is a continuous effort on the part of the American Buddhists to re-create and re-design Tibetan Buddhism, bringing from their cultural and civilizational milieu values that are not really a part of the original Tibetan Buddhism.
Vajrayana Buddhists believe it is possible to become a Buddha in this life; in fact, there are said to be many Buddhas, even now. The goal is to become a Buddha through meditative practices given to them by their mentor guru. People can be in touch with the Buddha reality through their contacts with living Buddhas around them. This is in contrast to Mahayana belief that those who have attained buddhahood allegedly live a world of purity and complete happiness.
There are several works, both classical and modern, that deal with the similarities and differences between Buddhism and Christianity. Special focus on Vajrayana and Christian theology is not readily available.
Vajrayana assumes that body, mind, and speech may be regulated through proper rituals. This control helps the disciple to have control over spiritual forces and attain nirvana, even in this life, if he follows the secret practices handed down from his master.
A variety of practices is followed, but these may be considered under several broad types:
Shamatha, or shamatha-vipashyana, focuses on various postures to be assumed and emphasizes the regulation of breath. Tranquility of mind is the goal in this practice. Shamatha is a lower form of exercise which should further lead to advanced practices. However, many may stop with doing this practice only. Individuals take refuge reciting the Bodhisattva vow, perform the postures, and regulate their breath in specified orders. At the end of this practice they declare that the merit thus acquired by them through this practice is distributed to all beings. It is an important introduction to higher forms of practice which includes stages such as visualization or higher forms of meditation.
Tonglen is a sending and receiving practice. It is a method of meditation in which the practitioner absorbs the confusion, suffering, and all the abnormal conditions characteristic of this world to him or her, and neutralizes these in his or her mind and spirit. In other words, the practitioners become a garbage cleaning machine, if you will. With every inhalation, purification process is activated, and with every inhalation only the goodness of what was taken in is released to the world. The practitioner releases goodness, health, sanity, compassion, etc. into the world.
Abisheka or anointing may be also translated as initiation or empowerment. Through a ritual procedure, the disciples are given specific teaching, often specific to the individual, and not known to others, and the disciples are asked to practice these procedures. These are normally secret teachings; in recent times, however, in American Vajrayana, groups of disciples are involved simultaneously in abisheka, and such rituals may be introduced in public. Secrecy is minimized with the claim that benefits will accrue to even those who witness such ceremonies, and it is good to practice abisheka rituals in public. Even though the Dalai Lama does this in public and supports such public performances, not all agree to this arrangement. It is also not clear whether all those who get this initiation or empowerment practice the rituals as demanded on a regular basis.
More commonly followed and advocated practice is to do ngundro. Ngundro is a practice that is assumed to remove the negative elements that we carry and accumulate merit in order to achieve higher Vajryana values. It is assumed to help develop right view, as demanded in the historical Buddha teaching. Ngundro includes rituals, prayers, physical and mental exercise to purify body, speech, and mind.
In the first ngundro, the disciple prostrates before the Buddha idol, picture, or altar. In the second ngundro, a disciple is asked to visualize a Buddha, who purifies the thoughts and actions. During this ngundro, the disciple recites his mantra given to him, which usually has one-hundred syllables. In the third ngundro, the disciple makes a series of offering that includes saffron rice, coins, jewels, semi-precious tones, etc., arranged elegantly on a beautiful round plate. The offering signifies the universe and all its good things being offered to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The last one is the visualization ngundro in which the disciple visualizes his guru to be an embodiment of Buddha. He visualizes that his guru is part of great lineage and in him all the wisdom of the lineage is found. At this stage memorization and recitation of many mantras take over.
Tibetan Vajrayana is meticulous about the number of times that ngundros should be performed to become effective. For example, the first three ngundros are to be performed not less than one hundred thousand each before the last one which may go up to even 1,110,000 times. The practice of ngundros, which are considered to be a low level spiritual exercise, takes many years to complete.
How much contextualization of this practice can be used in Christian worship? Or are we really expecting to contextualize these practices and include them in some form in Christian prayers? Mechanical repetition, with no repentance and change of heart, is despised in the Word of God (Matthew 6: 7).
OTHER MEDITATION PRACTICES
Sadhana is a higher level of meditative spiritual practice, in which the disciples are asked to practice visualizations of a Buddha or Bodhisattva. The goal is to reach a level of total liberation or total consciousness in which the disciple identifies his body, speech, and mind with a fully realized being.
The disciple first takes the refuge and dedicates all merit that result from his performance of ritual to the benefit of other beings. Then he begins to visualize a Buddha or Bodhisattva in great detail such as the place they live in, their clothing and jewelry, their special postures, gestures, etc. In other words, a real life picture of a Buddha or Bodhisattva is continually visualized in the mind of the disciple.
The disciple continually recites the mantras associated with the chosen Buddha or Bodhisattva. This fortifies the visualization process. Since visualization is an important means, it is sought to be induced with a variety of drugs. Hypnotic techniques are introduced. Descriptive language brings before the eyes of practitioner a word picture that helps him to visualize. This visualization process is continued soon with a focus on the elimination of all impurities of one's life. These are obstacles to realize to enlightenment, and clear visualization can be achieved only if such impurities are totally eliminated. Consciousness is fully awakened through this elimination of impurities. The final step is actually dissolving the visualizations altogether! The disciple does not and should not need any crutch such as visualization at the end. Once he is fully awakened, he should carry this into the world to bring merit to all. He is totally detached, and he simply donates all his merit to other beings.
While several steps of sadhana are performed by ordinary American Buddhists, only very few survive the required three-year three-month retreat.
ORDINARY TIBETAN BUDDHISTS
The rituals followed by the committed American Buddhists are elaborate, similar to those followed by the monks in Tibet or India/Nepal. However, ordinary Tibetans, both in Tibet and in other parts of the world, do not perform intensive rituals. Only a brief while is used to perform the rituals before the idol or picture. But the belief in the efficacy of the rituals is universal.
An active pantheon of gods and spirits, both male and female, characterizes Tibetan Buddhism. The most popular female deity is Tara, who may be depicted with more than two eyes. She is ferocious, compassionate, a protector of travelers (navigators), and a symbol of purity in her incarnations.
In Vajrayana, the historical Buddha, Gautama, is given rather a secondary position; Padmasambhava occupies the most prominent ritual status, visualized in several forms (such as a tiger-god, a perfector of thought, or a god of wisdom).
A problem with Tibetan Buddhism is that because it is an esoteric or secret practice, the laity is not involved. The role of Buddhism in Theravada countries (like Sri Lanka) has been to educate the laity even through secular education offered in the monasteries. In Vajrayana nations, monasteries become sacred places where monks live and practice meditation; the role of the laity is mainly to support the clergy to acquire merit and to receive the benefits of their magical powers. (In some manner, the gulf between American practitioners of Vajrayana and the Tibetan immigrants, referred to earlier, may be related to this dichotomy.)
Lay people, however, are extremely loyal, both seeking and obeying monastic leadership. The laity's attitude is that Vajrayana is a mystery, and that mystery is time-honored and used for the benefit of the whole community. Note, however, the influence of the clergy on the laity has enabled the people to develop extraordinarily good manners and compassionate lifestyles.
The Tibetan region is known for its relatively low crime rate, and Tibetan concern for the welfare of animals is legendary. At the same time, certain theological beliefs are occasionally taken to extreme ends. For example, butchers occupy the lowest societal stratum.
Things have begun to change radically in Indian cities among the Tibetan people where these people have to eke out a living in competition with and among those who do not really care for morals and ethics when it comes to making a profit. They are easily provoked into anger when dealing with the customers. A tragedy, indeed, to see the loss of good social behavior that was imparted by their religion.
I believe that the competitive spirit that prevails in any job situation in the United States, and the sense of insecurity they have in a foreign land with less than impressive professional skills may have bad influence on them. As friends of Jesus we can certainly help them retain their best elements while building our relations with them.
Tibetan adult immigrants are in need of counseling in many areas: their inter-personal relationship with those they come across in their jobs, in public places, in planning for their economic future, etc. They need attention from those who speak the language of love and friendship, who are in a position to help them even in small ways.
Congenital disorders are assumed to be the result of bad karma acquired in a previous life. Actually, anything that happens now is a consequence of past karma. Sometimes people justify (at least jokingly) their present wrongdoing against another as a tit-for-tat action for what that person did in a previous life!
AMULETS AND OTHER PRAYER MECHANISMS
Amulets and charms, usually attached to garments, are worn in abundance by Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhists. These function as a guard against demons who bring disease and misfortune; they usually have a Sanskrit word or phrase or even a sentence inscribed on them, and they may have relics inside (a piece of garment cloth, nail clippings, or even the dropped food) of living or dead lamas. Spiritual force or power is supposedly contained in these objects. I have no information on these practices among the Tibetan immigrants to the United States and the other western nations. However, it is safe to assume that some of these are still retained in the privacy of the Tibetan immigrants.
The lamas and diviners guide the lives of the Vajrayana laity from birth to death. Prayer flags for the dead and for spirits are hoisted everywhere for protection from evil. This practice of hoisting the prayer flags is followed in some practice centers. People look for omens, search for information on lucky and unlucky objects, events, times and days, and consult with the Lama (who is considered to be adept at astrology and divination). People continually pray; often their prayers are either warnings to the evil forces (devils and demons) that the Buddhas will punish them or petitions to the Buddhas to save them from these evil forces. Such prayers are offered throughout the day in silence by the Tibetans in exiles, often unobtrusively.
Prayer wheels, an integral part of worship, are spun constantly during the recitation of the Sanskrit mantra, "Om mani padme, hum!" (which is said to possess power). This is an omnipotent utterance that saves the Buddhist believer and finally transports him or her to heaven, where Amida (Amitabha) Buddha has his abode.
One problem with the use of a prayer wheel is that prayers become rote. The repetition of a specific word, phrase, or sentence is accompanied by the belief that this action will bring desired results through magical powers, and the focus is more on getting material results than on experiencing spiritual growth. The Word of god does not teach us to worship God in a mechanical fashion. Jesus said, "The true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24).
The Tibetan layperson sees demons everywhere and is mortally afraid of them. Demons engender many problems, bring sickness, cause drought conditions, and so on. Vajrayana followers seek the help of their Buddhas to save them and to kill these demons, but they are never sure that this request is granted, and so they propitiate the Buddhas annually. Doubt comes from their uncertainly about the karma that they have carried into this present life and also from their uncertainty about whether the Buddhas have listened to them and will intervene.
The Bible recognizes the existence of demons and cites ample incidences of Jesus driving them out. At the same time, the ministry of Jesus and His disciples was about the salvation of this sinful world and about our fellowship with God and worship of Him. Through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, victory is assured once and for all. Followers of Christ have the freedom not to be anxious about evil spirits taking possession of them or putting obstacles in the way of prosperity. We do not live in fear but in hope and with courage, and we rest in the assurance of Jesus' presence with us, come what may. So our focus is not on what demons can do to us but on what God will do in, through, and for us when we follow Him and His Word. Even when demons attack us, which they are capable of doing, we know that God promises to "(work) for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).
Vajrayana is highly identified with tantric practices (specialized, technical, and secretive procedures given in manuals) that are not open to the public-even other co-participants may not be informed as to what someone else is doing or reciting. Absolute spiritual authority is vested with monk-guru who orally initiates an individual. Traditionally, the practices were not reduced to writing, but in recent times, because of the Western thinking, some attempts have been made to write out selected synopses.
Practitioners are forewarned that knowledge of tantrism does not automatically lead to its successful practice. As one commentator put it, one needs to "undergo difficult and lifelong trial of spiritual transformation." Although tantric practitioners proclaim that theirs is not black magic, something done in secret becomes black magic in its assumptions and principles. Tantrism is occultic in that the word occult means "hidden." It operates on the basis of the law of similarity and contiguity.
There is a general approach in Tibetan Buddhism that compares and contrasts human sexual experience with the divine bliss of conceptualizing and experiencing the union of gods and goddesses in divine embrace. Thus, in some teaching it is the control and regulation of human sexual experience that is significant in the path to nirvana, while in others total abandonment to the experience of sexual union is the key.
Vajrayana teachers acknowledge that this has led to widespread misuse among people who claim to practice tantrism. They also bemoan the fact that several New Age groups abuse and misinterpret the original intent of such practices.
Let us tell our Vajrayana friends that any attempt to locate God or His powers in the experience or control of sexual urges is not only an insult to the One who instituted and blessed our sexuality, but it also corrodes our very social fabric by encouraging, condoning, and legalizing secretive experiments with unlawful sexual relationships.
Tantric bliss is defined as the process of losing one's separate identity and becoming one with God. The issues of our sinful nature, the need for repentance, and the importance of living a sanctified life are bypassed through manmade techniques. In many ways, sexuality is no doubt a mystery, but to elevate it as a tool for experiencing God and becoming one with Him is atrocious; it reduces God to the level of human existence, despite the claims of tantric practitioners to the contrary.
Sexual metaphors are common in most religions for describing the relationship between humans and God. In Christianity, too, such metaphors are easily found (in the Song of Solomon, for example); however, Christian sexual analogies of union are based on the firm belief that sexuality is a God-given gift. Such comparisons illustrate divine love from the pedestal of union between man and woman because such love is pure when divinely ordained.
It is indeed unfortunate that people (and the institutions they have built) try to use sexuality as part of ritual practice. They attempt to localize spiritual power in body, fertility, and sexual communion, making effort the basis of salvation rather than realizing that no amount of work can bring deliverance. We are saved by God's grace alone.
Anthropologists report that some tribal societies in Australia and other parts of the world practice ritual sexual union, believed to nurture communal cohesiveness and harmony. It is not just tribal societies that seek spiritual power in this way - the fact of the matter is that these beliefs give license to people to do what they please instead of subjecting themselves to the guidelines of God-ordained love.
Reference to such delicate issues should be made only when your friend is comfortable with you. Other important matters-idol worship, day-to-day ritual, and belief in spirits, for example-may be first presented to your friend in relation to the ministry of Jesus.
Simple beverages are ritually used in many religions. In some, intoxicants play a special role in inducing trance, spirit possession, and exorcism. This is especially common in systems that encourage secretive practices. The shamans and priests, to bring themselves into trance, regularly use opium, marijuana, hashish, and other herbal drugs. The Word of God is against using intoxicants for any kind of experience: "Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18). Consider the ridicule of drunken behavior in Isaiah 28:7-8. There are many other passages in the Word of God that deal with drunkenness and the consequent loss of sense and propensity for evil behavior. The writer of Ecclesiastes says that he tried cheering himself with wine and embraced folly (2:3). Isaiah 5:22 condemns those who consider themselves "heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks." Modern chemistry has helped produce narcotic and hallucinogenic drugs, and the loss of fear for God and the practice of false religions has led to easy distribution and abuse.
Our friend will likely question why Western Christians drink alcohol and then condemn substances such as opium, hashish, and marijuana. There is really no justification. The status of wine is somewhat ambiguous, but consumption of wine in order to get high is certainly prohibited. The best course of action for our witness is to avoid alcoholic drinks.
Remember to tell our friend that desire for the consumption of alcohol and other drugs grows in us, enslaves us, and makes us seek stronger dosages every day that we continue our involvement with it. Soon the body benumbs, and excitement is possible only with greater quantities, along with which come the dangers of permanent depression and sickness. Finally, elevating the use of substances as an integral part of worship gives it a legitimacy, splendor, and magical power that causes as to be tempted to fall into Satan's trap; only God's grace can save us.
In some ways Mongolian Buddhism exemplifies Tibetan folk Buddhism very clearly: Invocations and incantations to the spirits and idols, loud drum beating, worship of a variety of images, the appeasement of the spirits of dead ancestors, and use of triangular bones for divination. Exorcism of evil forces through a variety of rituals, including the burning of malevolent spirit effigies; all these create theatrical atmosphere and create fear in spectator-worshipers. Sign reading and reciting charms are also common.
Unlike orthodox Buddhism, which focuses on eventual total extinction, folk religions attached to Buddhism seek solutions to current predicaments and hostile environments. Herein lies the problem of the ordinary Buddhist layperson: he wants relief in the present, but there is no hope for it unless he goes outside Buddhism and accepts the help of shamanism.
Let us tell our friends that Jesus is not only the God of the future but also the God of both the present and the past. He is here forever, and His compassionate mercy is always available: "He is good; his love endures forever" (2 Chronicles 5:13).
Some forms of Tibetan Buddhism encourage trance (or ecstasy). Trance is induced by rapid repeated body movements; sensory bombardment using drums and shrilling pipes; loud, repetitive singing; and the consumption of intoxicants.
SOME GLIMPSES INTO EARLY MISSIONS IN TIBET AND MISSIONARY THOUGHT
Attempts have been made by Catholic missionaries since mid-seventh century to enter Tibet and establish Catholic communities through the conversion of the Tibetan people in various parts of Tibet. Tibet was approached both from China and India. The Jesuit Father Antonio de Andrade went through India to Tibet and had some initial success. However, he had to return to India. One of the most important fathers from the Catholic church to enter and establish mission work in Tibet was Father Desideri in the 18th century.
Political unrest within Tibet, and continued competition between the various orders as to the domains of their ministry somewhat hampered the progress of Catholic missions in Tibet. Medical, translation, and literature ministries were prominent in their work. Some of these missionaries were warmly welcomed by the authorities, but there was overall resistance to and contempt for the Christian religion. The tracts were refused, thrown out, or trampled, etc., in public.
Odoric, a Capuchin monk, who was perhaps the first European to arrive in Lhasa, in early 14th century, found some external similarity between Tibetan Buddhism and Roman Catholocism. He reported, "In this city of Lhasa dwells the Obaysam, that is to say in their language, the pope. They do not marry, and the young ones sing chants, clear, loud, and expressive after out style. Their temples are like our churches but finer and better adorned. There is an image of the mother of god, and the priests heaqr confessions, have holy water and a sprinkling compared to baptism" (Allan Maberly, God Spoke Tibetan, Harvest House Publishers,CA 1977, p.48).
Marku Tsering, in his very insightful work, Sharing Christ in the Tibetan Buddhist World, raises the question "Why had Catholicism failed to find a home in Tibet?" He answers it by saying that in addition to the political unrest, "One reason may lie with the missionaries. Of all the Capuchin and Jesuit fathers who served there, apparently only Desideri and Andrade learned the Tibetan language well enough to make their teachings clear to the rulers of Tibet" (p. 77).
Evangelical missionaries tried to enter Tibet through China as well as India and Nepal. Christian and Missionary Alliance Missionaries focused on entering Tibet through China, by establishing border mission post adjacent to Tibet. They were greatly successful in running their missions, but the fruit has been minimal. There was greater freedom in the past, in some sense, than we have now to preach the Gospel and establish mission posts in Tibet. The early missionaries had faced severe hardships, no doubt. The same trend still continues, and the fruit is meager.
Ekvall reports that, "the scattered individuals among the Tibetans who have professed interest and faith have done so secretly, none daring to break with the communal worship and take his stand openly. Years ago one man did make open confession and a short time later he was killed by his fellow villagers. According to Tibetan custom the affair was settled and life money eventually paid to the widow, so the matter was ended. When a village decides on such a course of action the life money is easily raised, and the deed being done it is paid for, there being no further redress" ((Robert B. Ekvall, Gateway to Tibet, Christian Publications, Inc., Harrisburg, PA., 1938. p. 177).
The story of the translation of the Bible into Tibetan (Allan Maberly, God Spoke Tibetan, Harvest House Publishers, CA 1977) is a heart-rending story of so many people, westerners, Indians, Pakistanis, and Tibetans ceaselessly working to get the Word of God translated into Tibetan. It took ninety years for the first translation and publication of the Bible in Tibetan!
Two Moravian missionaries, Hyde and Pagel, made early attempts to enter Tibet through western China. They were not allowed to enter Tibet. So, they decided to enter Tibet through India via Darjeeling-Kalimpong. In this attempt also they were turned back! They decided to learn the Tibetan language and translate the Bible into Tibetan. For their third attempt they first chose the route via Nepal, hitting upon the great idea of disguising themselves as pilgrims to the Hindu and Buddhist sacred peak of Mount Kailash. The local authorities wouldn't let them cross the border in any case! Finally they chose a route by the side of the great Indus River that was little traversed, and arrived in the Luba Valley, close to Tibet. The valley was inhabited by the Tibetans, who welcomed the travelers and encouraged them to settle down there. Hyde was a doctor and his services were in great demand, and highly appreciated. They were instrumental in the translation of Bible into Tibetan. A Tibetan national Christian who ministered to people in Leh in India, Yoseb Gergen, did the translation. We always see the hand of God in every translation of the Bible, working miracles in so many ways.
TIBETAN EVANGELISM - A STORY OF HOPE DEFERRED
Ekvall, a Christian and Missionary Alliance missionary who served on the Gansu-Tibetan border in China, writes, "The account of the work among the Tibetans is a story of hope deferred" (Robert B. Ekvall, Gateway to Tibet, Christian Publications, Inc., Harrisburg, PA., 1938), citing Dr. Simpson who said, "Tibet whose opening doors to clearly touch the portals of His coming" (p. 153).
Christian and Missionary Alliance missionaries adopted contacting individuals and their families and gave the gospel through friendship evangelism and medical services. Guest-room in the receptive Tibetan homes or often the homes of the missionaries became the center of evangelism. The missionaries sought after the key for friendship and used every opportunity toward this end.
Ekvall reports, "With singleness of purpose and patient tact they pressed into every friendly opening" (p. 156). "So again and again in the guest room-when the circle is packed with a couple scroe of faces, or when a solitary arrival drinks his tea and talks with his host-the story is told of a heavenly guest room where entrance is only secured by first-hand, intimate acquaintance with the heavenly host' (p. 186). But the early missionaries all knew that this was not enough: "yet guest-room is only half, or less than half, … for even guest-room work will languish and dwindle if the missionaries do not regularly visit old friends, going from encampment to encampment to stay with those who came as guests to him the year before, and making new friends who will come to him the year following" (Ekvall, p. 186).
ITINERANT EVANGELISM AMONG THE NOMADS
Itineration evangelism by which the missionaries spent a number of months in a year visiting the tent-dwellers in the grasslands of Tibet was an integral part of early evangelism. In a way despite all the perils, God enabled these missionaries to traverse long trails and reach out to the Tibetan Buddhists with medical aid, etc.
MIRACLES, SIGNS AND WONDERS, AND SPIRIT POSSESSION
There were also occasions when people asked the missionaries to pray for rain to overcome the severe drought conditions. The prayers were abundantly answered and this opened doors to the missionaries to move to the interior villages further. There were also reports in the early days that the missionaries cast out the evil spirits, which somehow led to schism among them. Their focus was not driving out the evil spirits that possessed the Tibetan Buddhists, but those of the Christians or seekers of God who were tormented by demonic possession.
Ekvall again writes,
The signs of revival were markedly evident, but before they could bear fruit, the devil created his own diversion that was significant of the religious conditions and manifestations current throughout the border country where the mystical esoteric forms of Tibetan Buddhism and Shamanism have exerted a strong influence and left a deep impression on Chinese religious life. One of these Christians, an earnest humble man who had been subject to demon influence before his conversion, became demon-possessed, and for a time, simulating Christian enduement, was the center of attention and interest. But soon by blasphemy and strange eagerness to receive some sort of worship, the evil spirit overreached himself, was detected, and by the laying on of hands in prayer and faith in the Name of Jesus, cast out. So never for an instant were the missionaries allowed to forget that behind the casual externals of cause and effect, and the everyday events of their work, was the hidden potent conflict of spiritual forces (p. 56).
THE HOLD OF THE PRIESTHOOD
Early missionaries noticed how the hierarchically organized priesthood, monks and the lamas (the Living Buddhas), despite their spiritual shortcomings, were able to command the loyalty of the ordinary people in Tibet. They saw in it not only spiritual deception but also economic exploitation. Some the writings of the missionaries clearly showed this anger against the monks, lamas, and the system they presided over and exploited. (Note that this is still one of the charges against the religious hierarchy that emanate from the Chinese government officials and ideologues.) The missionaries felt that the lamas went to the extent of asserting that the "facts which appear may be only illusions, the result of imperfect comprehension" simply perpetuate the lordship of monks and lamas over the ordinary Tibetans.
In this we see some of the aspects of why Buddhism has such a hold on the minds and hearts of the people. For the uncouth soul easily dazzled by glamour and show, it offers pageants and drama, buffoonery and high ritual; for the earnest, conscientious soul it offers painstaking performance of works and soul-satisfying sacrifice and effort; for the those who lack utterance it supplies magical, dimly-apprehended formulae-the very essence of religion put into the mouths of men; and to the scholarly one it offers all the delights of philosophical hair-splitting and the sophistry of basic agnosticism. Through it all runs the comprehensive adoration of images, shrines, books, and men, whereby men wrongly discharge the debt which burdens their souls; a debt which should be paid in worship and adoration to God alone (p. 170).
TO DEMONSTRATE THE POWER OF PRAYER HERE AND NOW
One of the early methods adopted was to enable the seekers to test and prove "the power of prayer to bring God's gift of health to sick bodies" (Ekvall, p. 173). Yet another method the missionaries included open preaching of the gospel message wherever the crowds gathered, especially in country fairs. The missionaries "with books and tracts and sounding trumpet" attended the fairs! And they drew good crowds, despite bickering by the lamas and shamans. And their preaching was in Tibetan.
Another medical missionary Leonard Moules, from the London Missionary Society, wrote in 1947,
Our work in this valley will entail tact and careful procedure that only an experienced missionary can supply. In other words, our third objective lies at the very door of Satan's greatest stronghold! He or she who holds the Cross aloft in the valley of this great pilgrim route faces the evil one within his very stronghold. Such a venture may not be made until that Crusader for Christ moves under a canopy of prayer that is assured by those who know the power of prayer. Constantly, day and night, through the months and through the years, that Crusader will be assaulted (Leonard C. J. Mloules, "Three Miles High," Christian Literature Crusade, London, 1947, p. 103).
The challenge for all of us who wish to go the native lands of Tibetan peoples and share the gospel is to learn the cultural ethos of the Tibetan people groups, and to master their language in some manner. While mastering the language may not be the top priority for those who wish to go on short terms, culture learning is absolutely needed for all of us.
Ekvall, himself a life-long missionary to the Tibetan people and a great scholar of Tibetan studies makes this interesting observation on one aspect of culture learning. There are many more such things that we need to be aware of.
In northeast Tibet some nicknames are merely abbreviations or mutilations of proper names, and are used in direct address, but for the most part these nicknames are descriptive and based on some personal idiosyncrasy; savagely candid as the conversation of little children. Savage candor is modified, however, by the fact that such names are never used in direct address, and the polite fiction is maintained that their possessors are conscious of them.
The remarkable restraint the Tibetans exercise in consistently calling a man by one name when speaking to him or in his presence, while referring to him by another in every other circumstance, is the result of training, certain definite habits of thought, and possibly the fact that drastic action so often follows a personal affront. The custom is an awful pitfall for the outlander feeling his way in the unfamiliar maze of primitive usages and taboos. But my Tibetan friends were tolerant of my blunders, although some of them, known by such names as Slab Face, Stretch Ears, Suint Eye and Mastiff Muzzle, cause me no small embarrassment when we engaged in casual, friendly conversation (Robert B. Ekvall, Tibetan Sky Lines, Farrar, Straus and Young, New York, 1952, pp. 17-18).
William Christie, called the apostle to Tibet, arrived in Shanghai on May 2, 1892. His biographer (Howard Van Dyck, William Christie, Apostle to Tibet, Christian Publications, Inc., Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1956) reports:
"With sounds of heathenism all around them and throngs of Chinese passing all day long just outside their doors, the desire to proclaim the story of salvation pressed heavily upon the missionaries' tongue-tied souls. They chafed under the agony of acquiring the difficult language word by word, and being spiritually minded young men, they wondered if there were not some shortcut, some royal road to learning. Might not the Lord of the harvest bestow upon them the gift of supernatural speech?
They did not appreciate the fact that, while they so painfully struggled with the language, they were at the same time acquiring a knowledge of the customs of the country, getting acquainted with the prejudices of the people, and becoming acclimated to an atmosphere of thought so often the very opposite of their own. They did not realize that ignorance of these things would make them appear crude and uncultured in the eyes of the people they sough to win, causing them to offend where they sought to save, and to make mistakes which require months or even years to rectify.
With more zeal than knowledge th4e young men threw aside their books, giving themselves to earnest prayer for the gift of the Chinese tongue. The superintendent, fully as zealous as they but having received the gift of divine wisdom, set a deadline for the students to meet. Said he, 'If by the first of next month you have not acquired the language by faith, I shall expect you to return to your books and get it by works.' ...
After seventeen months of language work in Wuhu, William Christie and William Simpson, both under appointment to Tibet, were sent to Peking to improve their Mandarin and be introduced to the language of the closed land. For eleven months at the imperial capital, within the sacred precincts of a lama temple, scholarly priests instructed the two missionaries in the rudiments of Tibetan speech and script (pp. 32-33).
Time and again, we read of accounts relating to spirit possession among the Tibetan people in the reports of the missionaries to Tibet. Van Dyck writes,
Held in the vise of an autocratic religious system, Tibet can boast of many spirit manifestations baffling to Occidental students of psychic phenomena and harassing to Oriental missionaries. Here in the homeland it is easy to discount tales of the supernatural, but life in Tibet provides mystifying cases not to be accounted for by any material causes (p. 122).
The life story of William Christie recounts several instances in which William Christie ordered the spirits to come out in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Even to his amazement, such spirits, though resistant in the first instance, did come out of the afflicted individuals ultimately. The procedure adopted by these missionaries was simply a replication of what Jesus and the apostles did.
Instances of miracles by prayer and faith and breaking idols as a sign of total surrender to Jesus are reported.
Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889-1929?), a great Indian Christian ascetic, was called of God to disciple Tibetans and other Himalayan people groups in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Sundar Singh was raised as a Sikh. Sikhs are known for their exuberant allegiance to their faith and loyalty to their family structure. Sundar Singh came to the Lord Jesus Christ while he was a teen-ager in a Christian school in the Punjab, India. Immediately after his conversion, he adorned the saffron robes of a Sadhu. Ascetics are a time-honored institution, often celibates, wandered around the land with their spiritual message, and lived on the alms people gave them. Total detachment from worldly life marked them distinct and gave them an aura of great spiritual attainments. The status of a sadhu is perhaps one of the highest positions in traditional Hindu religious theologies. The idea is similar to the position of mendicants in Buddhism.
Sadhu Sundar Singh was a charismatic leader-evangelist, a traveling missionary. He entered Tibet several times and was able to disciple some Tibetans. His biographers narrate incidents of miracles and healing in his ministry in Tibet. The Sadhu was simply reopening the spiritual passage that existed between India and Tibet for over a thousand years, this time with the message of His saving grace. The Sadhu's heart was set upon giving the gospel to Tibetans, even though his ministry was widely popular in India and abroad. He risked life several times in entering Tibet to preach the gospel against the wishes of lamas. And yet he once remarked, "Though an angel from heaven asked me not to go to Tibet I would still go" (Rebecca Parker, Sadhu Singh - Called of God, The Christian Literature Society, Madras, 1918, reprint 1996, p. 112).
Just before his last journey to Tibet from which he never returned, Sadhu Sundar Singh wrote on April 18, 1929, "I am leaving today for Tibet, fully aware of the dangers and difficulties of the journey, but I must do my duty. I set no value on my own life as compared with the joy of finishing my course and fulfilling the commission I received from the Lord Jesus to attest the Gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20 : 24)" (A. J. Appasamy, Sundar Singh, A Biography, The Christian Literature Society, Madras, 1966, p. 218).
Indian Christians always wonder about the Sadhu's disappearance. Despite every effort his body was never found. There was no trace of him in the route he took to reach Tibet. The fact of the matter is that he never returned. "Whether, worn out with pain, he fell in the high passes, and the snow covered his last sleep; whether he stumbled on a perilous ledge and fell into some deep abyss; whether a bridge gave way above a torrent; or wild beast sprang on him; or robbers slew him in the dark; or whether he reached Tibet, only to fall into the hand of the angry lamas-no one will ever know," writes J. Reason (The Man Who Disappeared, Edinburgh House Press, London, 1937, p. 32).
The Sadhu did indeed show us a path that we could follow in reaching out to the Tibetan Buddhists - adopting ascetics' approach to spirituality. It requires greater discipline and spiritual maturity to follow this path, but the Lord who puts it in the hearts of some of us will also equip us adequately.
EVANGELIZING TIBETAN BUDDHISTS
I have earlier identified several broad groups such as the Tibetan immigrants in the US and other Western nations, American and other Western Buddhists, people who are not yet Buddhists but are generally inclined to follow the Buddhist path, Tibetan exiles in the Indian subcontinent, etc.
Evangelism among Tibetan children is perhaps the most important and urgent area that we need to focus upon. We do not want them to lose their ethnic identity or their culture. Tibetan parents do show their desire for their children to get acculturated in the American mainstream. They want their children to receive a good public education and excel in their studies. I believe that we have an opening here to serve them and give the gospel of Jesus Christ in no offensive manner.
Marku Tsering's classic is still the best when it comes to ideas relating to evangelizing the Tibetans. Some of his suggestions are applicable only to the contexts in Tibetan communities in their traditional homelands, whereas others are equally applicable to the Tibetan immigrant communities in western nations:
- Get a good foundation by examining your own commitment to Christ.
- Undergo a systematic study of the Bible and Christian doctrine.
- Learn all you can about Buddhism and how it affects its host culture.
- Consider the standards of behavior that Buddhists expect from those who profess to be religious.
- Remember that Christians share the gospel by their lives as well as by their words.
- Understand and adopt local culture.
- Remember that "the person who has a plausible, non-religious reason for his or her presence in a country tends to be better accepted than the person whom everyone knows is there to preach a foreign religion."
- Be a gradual, thought-provoking loving, powerful witness.
- Remember the necessity of repentance and prayer.
- Learn the language well.
- Think like a Buddhist. Understand the concepts of compassion, God, incarnation, salvation, and sin.
- While selecting and adapting material for presentation, avoid offense-choose passages of Scripture that Buddhists will be able to grasp.
- Focus on spiritual issues.
- While applying the Word, adopt local styles: "Adopt informality, directness, lack of obvious reverence for God and the Scriptures, and over displays of emotion" (Marku Tsering, Sharing Christ in the Tibetan Buddhist World. InterServe, 1988, Upper Darby, PA. 149-55).
In my recent book Sharing Your Faith with a Buddhist (Bethany House Publishers, 2003), I focus on a few important items:
Absence of a Personal God
The first thing that we notice is that Buddhism denies a personal God. At the same time, almost in every shade of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha is deified, or Buddhahood is deified. Buddhists accept and worship other gods as well. On the other hand, we believe in only one Triune God. Our Buddhist friend, however, will question our claim that we worship only one God, although we see Him in three Persons.
The Trinity is a mystery even for those who meditate on the Word of God and are proficient with the history of the Church and its theology. But the Word of God portrays God in three Persons with the same essence. God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are eternally existent together with same essence, and their ministries, although somewhat different in human historical terms, are of the same essence and function. Belief in this doctrine is a crucial test for anyone who claims to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus clearly said, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30).
The doctrine of Trinity holds that, "There is only one God; each of the three divine persons is recognized to be God; God's self revelation recognizes distinctions among these three Persons in that there are interactions among them; and these distinctions are not just a matter of revelation (as received by humans) but are also eternally immanent in the Godhead" (Myers, 1190).
In John 14:10, we read that "Jesus answered: 'Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.' " As for the Holy Spirit, there are references to His ministry throughout the Old and New Testaments. He is described as the Spirit of God. Jesus says, "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever-the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you" (John 14:16-18). In these verses, the presence of the Holy Spirit is equated with the presence of Jesus Christ.
Throughout the history of the Church, attempts have been made to clarify the issues relating to the Triune God, with varying descriptions, similes, metaphors, and examples from experience in day-to-day life. One of the modern explanations given or cited by Norman Geisler as an answer to Muslim concerns on this point is a mathematical explanation. The Triune God is 1x1x1 that results in 1, and not 1+1+1 that results in the total of 3 (Geisler, 262).
It must, however, be stated that any amount of examples or explanations will not be adequate for non-believers from other religions to accept your explanation and description of the Triune God. Faith in the Triune God comes by the grace of the Lord. It cannot be easily imparted through reason or suitable similes or metaphors and illustrative examples from our day-to-day life. Let your Buddhist friend have his own objections. Do not enter into any argument on this count. Focus on prayer to the Lord Jesus Christ for your friend's personal needs. But never suppress that you are a believer in the Triune God, who is represented by His Son Jesus Christ. Tell him the parables of Jesus Christ, how he loves people, and how He is at hand to help us. Expect miracles to happen in the needy situations of your friend.
As I have stated elsewhere in my book Sharing Your Faith With a Hindu (Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, MNi, 2002), pray for him in his presence and let him know that you will continue to pray for him. You are not doing this for your personal benefit, but you do it for the spiritual benefit of your friend. When your prayer is answered, give glory to God only, in the presence of your friend. Never let him get an impression that you are a god-man with some miraculous powers. Never focus on the intensity or the efficacy of your prayer in such a way that your friend tries to give credit to you and not God.
Is Creation Worthless?
The Word of God does not treat humans or any creation as worthless. We become children of God..."all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God" (John 1:12). We are not worthless in any sense. Our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. This perhaps is the highest honor that may be bestowed upon us: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body" (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). The
The Word of God recognizes that we are sinners, but it provides for forgiveness and redemption through the grace of our Lord. Jesus says that we are worth more than many sparrows (Matthew 10:31). On the other hand, although the Buddhist belief insists on showing compassion to all creation, it nevertheless considers that life in this world is worthless. The goal is to seek total extinction. Even the human relations that we hold dear should be looked down upon as having no worth. That the body is corrupt and that the things we see and experience are transitory become the focus of meditation. That is, the Buddhists are called upon to meditate upon the worthlessness and transitory nature of the body.
Despising the Body?
While the Word of God does recognize that all things will pass away, it nevertheless does not despise the body. It recognizes that we are weak in our body, but helps us to overcome this barrier. Jesus wanted us to be partakers of His ministry, when he "took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'take and eat; this is my body' " (Matthew 26:26).
The Apostle Paul actually focuses on the body, its function, and the need to keep it holy in many places. He recognizes that our body is weak, subject to temptation, worldly in its view, and partakes in and is cause for our sin. But he does not ask for the destruction of the body while we are alive, nor does he denigrate it, because he knows that this body of ours is an instrument in the hands of God, and He will work in us through this body. Consider the following verses:
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have brought from death to life; and offer your body to him as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:12-13).
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord! … (Romans 7:24-25).
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23).
We should remember that as long as we live in this world, our body is an integral part of what we are. What we can do is to use the body to bring glory to God and love to our neighbors. The Apostle Paul looks at our body as an integral part of what we are. He writes to the Philippians, "I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. … If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. ..." (Philippians 1:20, 22).
The Apostle Paul also clearly tells us that God's fullness is revealed in the body of Jesus Christ: "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Colossians 2:9). Note also that when we are resurrected from the dead, we will have our own physical body: "… he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies though his Spirit, who lives in you" (Romans 8:11). We certainly should recognize the weakness of our body, but instead of denigrating it or looking down upon it, we should consecrate it to glorify God, and this is the major theme in our belief regarding the status and function of the physical body. There is going to be a spiritual body ultimately: "… The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). The Church is viewed as the Body of Christ.
Desire Is Evil? The Role of Desire in Human Life
One of the cardinal declarations of Buddhism is that desire is evil and it leads to the accumulation of bad karma that, in its turn, leads to endless births and deaths of the individual. On the other hand, the Word of God does not condemn desire as such, and it distinguishes between good and righteous desires and evil desires. I would like to make brief mention here that the Word of God abounds in assurance that the desire of the righteous will be fulfilled. When we desire to do God's will (Psalm 40:8), the Lord grants us the desire of our heart (Psalm 21:2). We are assured that "what the righteous desire will be granted" (Psalm 10:24). And the "desire of the righteous ends only in good" (Psalm 11:23).
Worldly Activity and Karma
Worldly action or activity is frowned upon because it adds to the karma one has already accumulated. The monks refrain from doing manual labor and devote their time to spiritual matters. Activity brings bondage to this world for all. So, one of the effective ways to ensure better karma is not to get engaged in any kind of worldly actions. In this sense, there is some denouncement of human labor. While the laity are encouraged to be morally upright in all their duties, including their work in the day-to-day world, in the consciousness of laypeople any labor is a kind of bondage to this world, and so it is a hindrance in their journey toward nirvana, the goal of total extinction. This sentiment is expressed in many places in numerous Buddhist texts. For example, we read in an eighteenth century Tibetan text,
"Oh to have given that care to those who were born of one's body - how pitiful!
Relatives united and intimate friends,
Children reared, and riches stored,
All are impermanent, like an illusion,
And nothing substantial is found in them.
My mind has now forsaken all activity.
So that I may keep constant to my vows" (Conze, 87).
It is true that Buddhism condemns evil deeds and exhorts people to do good deeds. We read in one of the texts, "Even a flight in the air cannot free you from suffering, After the deed which is evil has once been committed" (Conze, 83). But every deed and activity, good or bad, adds to karma, and, as such, activity in general should be avoided in order to attain nirvana. Righteous works are encouraged and demanded in Christian faith.
The Apostle Paul declares,
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19).
On the other hand, good works are an essential part of being a true follower of Christ. God is active from the beginning. He created this world, and the Word of God calls it work. God wanted the man to work, "and put him in the Garden to work it and take care of it" (Genesis 2:15). Work is not a curse or sin. God not only saw "all that he has made, and it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). Jesus himself was a carpenter (Mark 6:3). And the Apostle Paul supported Himself doing manual work (Acts 18:3). Work or activity, thus, is not considered evil in itself. See also Ephesians 4:28.
Our works will be judged, and "each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:10). That does not mean that we are guided by works alone, or that our evil works go with us without any scope for forgiveness while in this world. The Lord makes us righteous despite our evil works in the past if we believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior: "Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man's sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification, For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:16-17).
The Apostle Paul declares, "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which god prepared in advance for us to do" (Ephesians 2:10). In fact, the Apostle James asks us, "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him. Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if is not accompanied by action, is dead" (James 2:14-17). He further asks us, "You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. … You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone" (James 2:20-24).
Our belief does not condemn or look down upon work. We distinguish between good and evil works, emphasizing that every "good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows" (James 1:17), while at the same we declare that "… it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Works and Grace
This reconciliation of the tension between works and grace is to be restored in your Buddhist friend's belief. He often thinks that he is spiritually less worthy, and that only if he can adorn the yellow robes and become a monk is there any hope of salvation. Point out that even within the Buddhist belief the need for the work of the lay people is recognized, but it is given a short shrift as something spiritually less worthy. This world is not illusory, it is real but ultimately we are not of this world, and our citizenship is in the heaven praising the God of creation and fellowshipping with Him in His presence.
Life Is Worth Living
The major goal of Buddhism is to enable people to get release from suffering brought out by desire and is reflected in the endless cycle of births and deaths a being undergoes. Life is full of suffering; the root cause for this suffering is the desire that is in the hearts of human beings; suffering can be eliminated by eliminating desire through following the noble paths and right conduct. That the world is full of suffering is recognized everywhere, but Buddhism denies that suffering has any benign role to play in the life of humans. We discussed the differences between Buddhist and Christian teaching on this point in an earlier chapter.
Life is a gift from God and is worth living, says the Word of God. God is a God of life, and His covenant with us is "a covenant of life and peace" (Malachi 2:5). If we love Him (that is, if we follow His precepts and commands), God promises, "With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation" (Psalm 91:16).
Living or life is not an end in itself. Our Lord says, "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39). The Lord also asks us not to worry about our life, "… do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes" (Luke 12:22-23).
The Gospel of John is about life that flows from God. The Apostle John writes, "through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men" (John 1:3-4). Jesus is "the bread of life" (John 6:35). Jesus declares, "The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life" (John 6:63). See also John 10:10. In Christian belief God Himself is life and He is the life-giver. Life is not to be despised; only death is to be despised because it came into this world because of sin. The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
Buddhist's focus on karma gives enough room to describe good and evil deeds. But the notion of sin is distinctively absent. Man needs to work out his salvation on his own. His accumulated karma must be eliminated. He has not committed any "sin" against God, the gods, or other living beings. He may have done deeds, good or evil, against them or in their favor, but no sin is committed. He inevitably suffers the consequence for all his deeds. There is no escape from the consequences of karma. As we pointed out above, the Word of God clearly says that we will be judged for our good and bad works. But the grace of the Lord makes it possible for our salvation. On the other hand, karma is an inexorable and inflexible process. Neither the Buddha, nor the gods, nor even the good works of the individual will save him from experiencing the consequence of his karma.
THE LIST OF CONTRASTS CAN BE EXPANDED
This list of contrasts between Buddhist and Christian beliefs can be expanded with additional points through diligent conversations you may have with your Buddhist friend. Remember, however, that such contrasts are for your understanding, not for a debate with your Buddhist friend. I really believe that confrontation and debate do not help bring about the conversion of the heart. Debates have the tendency to harden the hearts of people. They begin to cling to their own positions even when the fact is so clearly presented. Reasoning is important, but when it comes to a change of heart, there are many other facets that influence the process. Each individual has his or her way of looking at things presented to him or her. I sincerely believe that the conversion of the heart is the work of the Holy Spirit. We should co-operate with the Holy Spirit and not block His move with our human arguments.
QUESTIONS THAT OUR TIBETAN BUDDHIST FRIENDS MAY ASK
There are many such questions that our Tibetan Buddhist friend may ask. Even the best answers may not be adequate to generate in him the faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Ultimately the conversion of the heart is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. We simply allow ourselves to be an instrument in the hands of the Holy Spirit.
With this fundamental assumption, I would like to present a few other important points here.
- In most of the countries where it is predominant, Buddhism is a government religion and is closely linked with political movements.
- Buddhist monks see danger to their belief and practice through the spread of Christianity in their nations.
- Even as sympathy toward Buddhism is growing in the West, the war in Vietnam in the past, the presence of American troops in some Buddhist nations, and the spread of secular education and political trends have fostered resistance to the gospel.
- Greater sympathy for the Tibetan cause in America and the West has not led to greater interest in Christianity among the Tibetan peoples.
- The spectacular growth of the Church in South Korea, I believe, is going to open greater doors to the gospel in Tibet and among the Tibetan peoples around the world.
- The Status of Jesus:
- In the eyes of Buddhists, Jesus is not even on the level of a monk.
- Jesus is an upstart in their eyes.
- Our Tibetan friends know well the mythology surrounding the birth and nirvana of Buddha (described as supernaturalism), but they are unwilling to accept the possibility that Jesus (who performed miracles) is divine.
- Our Tibetan friends may even assume that Jesus was nothing more than a magician and that by His magic He gathered needy, worthless people around Him. Because it is said so explicitly in their sacred books, our Tibetan and other Buddhist friends maintain that miracles are performed to overwhelm (and perhaps manipulate) those who observe them.
- Primacy of God in Human Life
- Jesus cautioned: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law-a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.' Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:34-48).
- Buddhists see in this a revolt against national identity and are alarmed to hear of such teaching, but this is not justified, given the extreme individualism preached by Gautama Buddha. The focus of Jesus in these verses is on the absolute primacy of God and the primacy of our love for Him over everything else in our life.
- Suffering is necessary and expected in this life. No amount of right speech, right thought, and right conduct can avoid suffering. It is easier to explain away suffering using karma, but it not doing away our suffering. Grace of God enables us to see suffering as a process of growth.
- Threat to Loyalty and Parental Authority: Loyalty and filial obedience are not against God. We need to tell our friends the difference between filial piety and filial obedience. The Word of God commands us to love, respect, and obey our parents. Parents must discipline their children and raise them in the fear and love of God (Ephesians 6:1-4). Disobedience to parents is a dreadful thing that will become more prominent (2 Timothy 3:1-5). When people are filled with wickedness, they disobey their parents (Romans 1:30). Buddhist reverence for and worship of the dead is often maintained through selfishness, rather than selflessness. While parents are loved and respected in every culture and theology-their authority over their young children recognized, as are their duties to protect, discipline, and expect good behavior-Christian belief also emphasizes that their ultimate responsibility is to lovingly, patiently, and constantly reflect the Lord. The love, respect, and obedience that children give to parents is a model for following God, our Father.
- Many Worlds, Many Heavens, Many Lives
- Buddhist apologists find the biblical creation story inadequate. There are numerous worlds and varieties of life-forms, gods, ghosts, and other species. How could this world and all it contains have been created in six days? What about the creation of other worlds that have existed for eons? Where do beings that live in different worlds go after death before they are born once again in this world?
- However, there is no evidence that humanlike beings are found on other planets or imaginary heavens. And again, the Bible declares that we have only one life (Hebrews 9:27).
- The nature and function of the Buddhist heavens revolve around samsara, and because Buddhist scriptures do not focus on god, Buddhists are unable to see the relevance of the creation presented in His Word-powers and works unimaginable to humans may be possible for a pantheon but not for a single, exclusive God.
- That humans subsequently devise such ideologies is one reason god prohibits us from worshiping anyone or anything other than Him.
- The jealous nature of God, exhibited extensively in the Old Testament, is the background of His exasperation with His chosen people, the Israelites. On many occasions He warned them to be obedient and refrain from worshiping false gods, that He is rightfully jealous and would not tolerate their idolatrous transgression.
- In the New Testament, with the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the changed circumstances of the Israelites' fortunes, and the need for the gospel to be preached to all nations, there is greater emphasis on the judgment than the jealousy of God.
- An Arbitrary and Capricious God?
- Some Buddhists claim that God is inconsistent and irrational in His decision. But it is easy to explain how the Old Testament is full of instances in which God gave thorough warning before actions against those who were disobedient. The gospel of John shows how Jesus continually explained His status as the Son of God and passionately wooed sinners. Consider also his declaration in John 9:39, 41.
- Some Buddhists think that the portrayal of God as having emotions is a slight meted out to the Supreme Being, who, as a Buddha, is beyond emotions and existence. Because Buddha is presented as beyond all feelings, our Tibetan friend expects God to be bereft of emotion. The truth is that since God is a person, not merely a force, He relates intimately with and participates actively in His creation. Throughout the Tibetan mythology, spirits are personified. There is an ongoing contradiction here: Buddha is totally non-extinct, but he is continually worshiped.
- Some Buddhists consider God to be capricious or whimsical because Jesus allowed himself to be crucified.
- Some also so feel that God chooses one community over another. Buddhism, they claim, is truly international and offers nirvana without reference to social division or ethnic preference. Actually looking into the history of Buddhism, one would find that aristocrats and persons with the background of nobility always took precedence over the ordinary, and lame and deaf, et al. Discrimination in Buddhism is easily explained exploiting reason of karma.
- Jesus allowed himself to be crucified because He knew from the beginning that He was to offer himself as the sacrifice for the sins of His creation. This is neither capriciously whimsical nor tragically heroic. Jesus was merely fulfilling the plan that was established for Him from all eternity (Matthew 26:24).
- There is nothing whimsical, arbitrary, or capricious about what God did, or will do; Scripture gives reasons and explanations for the actions of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, comprehending, appreciating, and believing such teachings requires faith and wisdom from above, and "the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth" (Ephesians 5:9). Let us show our Tibetan friend biblical examples of God speaking against and laying out consequences for sin.
- Immanence and Relationship
- It is difficult for the Tibetan Buddhist and Buddhists in general to accept that God has entered into a covenant relationship with His creation and maintains personal relationship. Such covenant relationships are not strange to them, because there are mythological instances in which covenant relationships are established between guru and disciple, spirits and men who seek the help of the spirits, etc. But in all these such relationships are for a special material purpose, and are usually temporary and can be negated or changed.
- Unfortunately, Buddhism cannot provide for personal experience of God, for one thing, it does not believe in God (although it references "gods," "spirits," and "deities" abundantly).
- Deities may be appeased in the Buddhist folk stratum, and they may be portrayed as performing certain functions in orthodox doctrine, but Buddhists are cautioned to work out their salvation on their own, apart from relationship.
- God is always at hand for those who seek Him. God loves all, whether or not they yet believe. This important truth should be repeated again and again with our Tibetan friends. We should tell him the stories of how Jesus lived with us and suffered on our behalf. His suffering was for our sake.
- Testimonies regarding miraculous occurrences are welcome, but let these miraculous occurrences need not be spectacular. Let us show our friends that miracles do happen every day in the life of the believers in God. Prayers and supplications help us to receive blessings in miraculous ways.
- Miracles performed by Jesus Christ are important for the growth of faith in our Tibetan Buddhist friend, but he will first be employing human reason to find out how Jesus really fits in. He will probably compare Jesus to Bodhisattva or Arhat. Perhaps he will even claim that the archetype (original pattern) of Jesus is found in one of these two; for instance, that the concept of Bodhisattva (a selfless person not entering nirvana but staying back to help others) preceded the mediating role of Christ.
- Differences between Bodhisattva and Jesus Christ are found on several levels. A Bodhisattva does not guarantee nirvana; it is the individual who should work for this solution. A Bodhisattva himself has undergone several births and deaths and will continue to undergo samsara. An Arhat does not wait for (or help0 others to obtain nirvana (hence, the Mahayana claim that an Arhat is a selfish person).
- Does God Prefer One Ethnic Community Over Another? We need to mention repeatedly that the gospel is not against ethnic diversity or the retention of diverse cultures and linguistic allegiance. Jesus is not the God of any particular ethnic community but the God of all creation. He wants us to love one another, show respect to our parents and elders, be loyal to our nation and rulers, and seek to be righteous in everything we do. All this is agreeable to the average Tibetan, but he is very much attached to his deities and prayer rituals. We may have to start our conversation carefully, without hurting his feelings regarding his attachment to idols and rituals.
- If God does not favor one ethnicity over others, why did he do so with Israel? Is this supposed preference still in effect? What does God do now among the nations?
- It is important for us to use simple language and limited, carefully chosen, relevant words. Theological terms are technical, and your friend may either have no knowledge of them or even misunderstand them as referring to something that you didn't intend.
- The notion of a "chosen people" is found in the Bible. See Deuteronomy 7:6-8; Genesis 12:1 and Numbers 17:2.
- With the expanded revelation of God's eternal plan in the New Testament (which was constantly pre figured and prophesied in the Old Testament), emphasis shifts from the exclusive status of the Israelites as the chosen people to the right of all of us to become children (part of the chosen family) of God (John 1:12-13; 1 John 3:1-3; 1 John 5:2-4; 1 John 5:19-21).
- We need to tell our friend that our response is a key element in becoming His children (Matthew 22:14).
- We should be cautious not to enter into elaborate explanations or discussions on this subject, risking the impression that because our friend does not yet acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior, he is not valued by God.
- While presenting what the Word of God says about "chosen people" and "God's family," we should emphasize the Lord's mercy even to those who do not yet love and serve Him.
- Praying that God will meet the needs of your friend is a great way to keep the door open even as we refuse to twist or add to the Word of God.
- It is neither in our hand nor through our words that any one is saved. We are willing and cooperative instruments in the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
- The Cross as a Symbol of Suffering
- Buddhists are appalled at the sight of a man hanging on a cross, blood pouring from his body. The cross symbolizes acute anguish to them; their goal is to escape suffering, but Jesus seems to be the pathway to it!
- Buddhists look only at the physical suffering of Jesus, while ignoring or refusing to recognize the true reason for His crucifixion.
- Death of Christ was foretold (Psalm 22; Isaiah 53). By His crucifixion Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice to reconcile all people with God and to resolve the conflict between Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:11-16). For the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2). It is hard for us to grasp the glory of cross as a representation of what God did for us (1 Corinthians 1:18). Christ crucified is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, (it is) Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). And we must take up the cross to follow Him! (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34).
- The Cross finally comes to represent victory rather than defeat, and when we remember how the victory was won we also remember in whom we are to put our trust.
- Total Extinction or Eternal Life?
- We have only one life! (Hebrews 9:25-28). No one is reborn into this world, in any form. All of us are immortal. There is life after death, and but samsara is not included: The choices are eternal perfection and eternal condemnation (Matthew 25-46, John 3:15-18).
- Inheriting eternal life is based on our faith in Christ, and He wants us to live a holy, selfless life that reflects the truth (Mark 10:17-21).
- Our Tibetan Buddhist friend may tell us that precisely for this reason (reference is to Jesus asking the young man to go, sell every thing you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven") Buddhism declares that only monks who have given up everything will be able to achieve nirvana. Jesus did not ask the young man to leave this world. God is no respecter of persons. He loves us all as His creation.
- We need to tell our friend that eternal life is not relegated only to future life in heaven. The kingdom of God is already here (Matthew 13:18-23).
- Galatians are clearly told: "The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap the eternal life" (Galatians 6:8).
- Buddhist texts speak of a number of hells and heavens, transitory camps of sadness or bliss for people who eventually come back to this world and continue the consequences of their past karma. No assurance that one will or can gather enough good karma to eliminate bad karma and attain nirvana. Gautama Buddha undertook journeys to various heavens.
- The Tibetan Buddhist heavens are qualitatively different from the heaven of our belief. We need to tell our friends that heaven is not a transit camp for the dead but rather the place we enter into the presence of God. Heaven is not a place for the earthly high and mighty to rule over us; there is no social discrimination or economic disparity. The Lord Jesus is the way to heaven, and He compassionately welcomes us all (Matthew 11:28-30).
- Our Tibetan friend is surprised at the simplicity of Christian worship (though some churches do introduce spectacular practices lacking in reverence). He is accustomed to elaborate rituals and ceremonies, and in the absence of an idol or image of Jesus Christ before the worshipers, he will almost certainly feel that our worship of the Lord is without any awe of His presence. He is accustomed to the kind of worship and adoration given to the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and spirits.
- Needless to say that Buddhist rituals and sacrifices are in sharp contrast to what Scripture tells us.
- Appeasement of or placating spirits is an important part of Tibetan worship. Even though we have no need to appease or placate spirits, Christians are not passive against evil (Ephesians 6:11-13).
- Nor does Christianity support disrespect or authority or disobedience to it (disobedience is to occur only when by obeying an earthly command we could not be faithful to God).
- Maintaining Ethnic Identity
- A major problem that Tibetan Buddhists will face in regard to the acceptance of Jesus is Christianity's insistence that every individual must confess his sins and repent. Tibetans in general are a silent community. While this community silence is somewhat broken among the Tibetans settled in India, everyone who comes across them notes this feature; in some sense, Tibetans are people of fewer words when they are in the midst of non-Tibetans.
- In cultures that are largely inward-focused, confession is a foreign concept. We need to really work on a manner that will retain the essential features of this process of confession while giving greater freedom to the Tibetans to retain their social posture. Perhaps we need to identify a form from within the Tibetan culture that may carry a large part of Christian confession.
- A person becomes a Christian as an individual, but then she is expected to be a member of the believing community. In other words, conversion of the heart can be taken, unfortunately, to mean the mandatory ending of long-standing relationships. Although sometimes spatial and/or emotional separation must occur, church leaders encourage new Christians to continue to maintain relationships with family and friends.
- The new believer (or potential convert) may be intimidated through language that is sometimes adopted by Christians. Terms such as "winning over" or slogans like "Tibet for Christ" can cause misunderstanding and also be taken as an affront against the new Christian's community, nation, and ethnicity.
- We must be intentionally and constantly sensitive, and even when we are, the convert's process of learning and adjustment is extremely difficult and must be achieved by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
- Conversion: A Gift from the Holy Spirit
- Conversion of the heart is an involved and mysterious process. We must make ourselves available to the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. No one method should be suggested, and our efforts will be effective if they are co-operational, relying on the Holy Spirit for wisdom, discernment, and guidance.
- Let us make ourselves fit vessels for this task by diligent fasting and prayer.
- Pursue visits with our Tibetan friends as frequently as possible. Care for their well-being through words and actions. Establish friendship and understanding, from which trust can be built.
- It is not right for us to focus mainly on our Tibetan friend's acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior. If it is the will of the Lord, our friend will take this step. God enables us to sow the seed, but we might not reap the harvest. Our friendship will certainly result in opening a window through to see God, whether our friend embraces Jesus immediately or not. Because the Word does not return void.
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