Preparing to Share the Gospel with Tibetan Buddhists

by David E. Housholder

In a previous article we looked briefly at the history of Buddhism and the development of the Tibetan version. We focused then (and now) on Tibetan Buddhism because it is becoming more widely known in the U.S. than other forms of Buddhism, due to the popularity of the Dalai Lama and to factors which will be examined below.

Tibetan Buddhism is influencing our culture in both subtle and open ways. The subtle influence comes largely through media sources. Movies such as Little Buddha, which proposed a small boy in Seattle was recognized as the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama and which included a whole retelling of the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. More recently we have The Last Mimzy, replete with Tibetan symbolism including a child constructing mandalas, the complex diagrammatic models of the universe that serve, in Tibetan Buddhism, as spirit traps. Further, there are well-known Americans who are offering strong support for the Free Tibet movement. And since Tibetans believe there can be no preservation of Tibetan life and culture without the preservation of Tibetan Buddhism, the political and religious concerns are inseparable. The Tibet and Tibetans of most films are likely to leave us thinking of Tibet as the mythical Shangrila, a perfect and peaceful society that is more fiction than fact.

How else do we see Buddhism and other Eastern religious influences in our society? Think how often we hear of people- some claiming it is "just for fun"-consulting their horoscopes. How often do we hear "I must have done something right in a previous life," or "Something went wrong; I guess I must have some bad karma," even from Christians? Sure, they probably don't really believe in rebirth or karma-but they may suspect there is some truth in these concepts. Even meditation, which in a biblical context means thinking over and reviewing the Word of God, is understood even by some Christians as in Eastern religions, a calming and emptying of the mind, perhaps focusing on a single candle or on a repeated word or phrase (a mantra).

The subtle influences may be harder to spot, but there is no doubt about the open ways Tibetan Buddhism is influencing our land. One is through events that are presented as cultural events. Recently, for example, Tibetan monks created a sand painting (mandala) in a museum in Atlanta. Such mandalas are painstakingly-created complex geometric drawings, but when finished they are swept away and the sand is poured into a nearby stream or river. The distribution of the sand serves two purposes: it demonstrates the impermanence of all things, and it sends the spiritual powers that have been called to indwell the mandala out to bring their influence on all the land the flowing waters touch. Tibetans also believe that a seed of awareness of Tibetan Buddhist understanding is planted in anyone who views such a mandala. So when the major local newspaper recommended that families bring their children to watch the monks create the mandala and that, when it was destroyed, the children might even have a chance to bring home a little bag of the sand as a souvenir, the writer probably had no idea that from a Tibetan point of view some spiritual influence was being placed on those children.

In 2000 the Smithsonian sponsored a Tibetan cultural exhibition on the Mall in Washington, DC. Monks built a reduced-scale temple and led visiting school children in the making of Tibetan prayer flags and other Tibetan religious symbols. The exhibition was visited by 1.2 million people. Tibetan monks annually present programs of dance and music in various cities of North America, some even hosted by churches. And the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political head of the Tibetans, is traveling the world in 2007 drawing large audiences by presenting lectures on such appealing topics as personal and world peace and care of the environment but also, in some of these same cities, offering occult empowerment ceremonies.

If you saw the previous article you may recall the purpose of this series of three articles is to help pastors prepare their church members to be ready to share Christ with followers of Tibetan Buddhism. Who are these followers? There are perhaps as many as 15,000 Tibetan immigrants in the USA and another 9,000 in Canada. There is an unknown number of Americans who have joined with the Tibetan Buddhist instruction centers and become followers of that path, and there are many more that are attracted to some of the aspects of Tibetan Buddhism even if they are not yet fully practicing it.

So how can our church members share Christ with these people?

Christians may have learned to use certain tools in evangelism, such as the Four Spiritual Laws or the Evangelism Explosion questions, but those tools are largely useless with a Buddhist. Our presentations begin with an assumption that there is a God and that God interacts with people. But in Buddhism there is no self-existent eternal God. Even Genesis 1:1 makes no sense to them because not only is there no God, there also was no creation. And any communication a Buddhist might have with a deity is more due to coercion exercised by that person and not due to any eagerness of the deity to interact with people.

And when we try to talk of the Lord Jesus Christ we run into further difficulty because the Tibetan Buddhist believes that any suffering encountered in this life is the result of bad actions in a previous life. So they are confused by the sufferings of our Lord. Even the hope for the future is different. The Christian rejoices in the promise that the individual can live forever in the presence of a holy and loving God. Such a goal is unacceptable to the Tibetan Buddhist whose goal is the total extinction of individuality through recognizing that individual existence is a damaging illusion.

So what do we need to do to be ready to share what we see as great news with those who will be puzzled by most of what we say? And what of those who claim Buddhism is not a religion but rather a philosophy, a way of life, a pattern of ethics? They claim someone can be a Christian (or Muslim or Hindu) and be a Buddhist at the same time.

A first task, then, for a pastor or teacher is to help Christians review their own thinking and understand the immense differences between the Buddhist ways of thought and the biblical concepts. Christians need to understand that the two systems of belief cannot co-exist in one person. Until the Christians realize that truth, they cannot help others understand the uniqueness of the gospel message. In Jesus in a New Age, Dalai Lama World, M. Tsering writes, "the doctrinal teachings of Tibetan Buddhism stand opposed to Christianity at virtually every point and at the most fundamental levels" (page 201).

The good news, however, is that few people begin their journey as a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ through a discussion of doctrine. They begin by encountering Him in the lives of His people and in His Word. We will look in more detail at the process for sharing Christ with followers of Tibetan Buddhism in the next article, but here are some beginning steps.

We need to help our people see that sharing Christ with Buddhists is never going to be a quick and easy process. It must begin with a sincere love of people and a desire to get to know people as they are. It means developing friendships that are not utilitarian but that are real and that can continue even if the other person does not choose to become a follower of Christ.

We need to enable our people to know the Bible. They need to meet Jesus in the Scriptures so they can share about Him with sure biblical understanding. Before going out in evangelism it is good for people to study through a Gospel; the Gospel of John being a good choice, as it is written in ways that speak to a Buddhist way of thinking.

We need to challenge our people to lives of holiness. It will be transformed lives that carry the strongest evidence of the reality of biblical truth. People around us are looking for evidence of lives lived in harmony with our beliefs rather than ideas expressed.

David E. Housholder served for over 20 years in India among Tibetan Buddhist refugees.
He is Interserve USA's EthnoServe director and is the co-author, along with
M. Tsering, of Jesus in a New Age, Dalai Lama World: Defending and
Sharing Christ with Buddhists.

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