Kham in the storm
Tibetan Buddhism a way of life, but not The Way
Faster than you can say the greeting, “Tah-shi de-leh,” the Tibetan wants to know if you have met the Dalai Lama.
When you have come from the outside world, where their beloved Dalai Lama lives in exile, you are greeted with questions. Forget the language barrier. Curiosity finds a way to communicate. “Have you seen him?”
“The people would die for the Dalai Lama,” says our Tibetan translator, who is a Christian. “It is very serious to them.”
The Dalai Lama’s photograph adorns the peoples’ necklaces, their nomadic tents and winter homes, and their modes of transportation. In the United States, children stick baseball cards in the spokes of their wheels. In China, Tibetans have card-like photos of the Dalai Lama attached to the handlebars of their motorbikes.
They follow this man, whose real name is Tenzin Gyatso. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibet, a reincarnation of the peoples’ patron saint. There have been 14 reincarnations of the Dalai Lama. His Holiness, as he is known, is considered an “enlightened” being who has postponed his own nirvana and chose rebirth in order to serve humanity.
From the 17th century to 1959, the Dalai Lama was also the leader of the Tibetan government. But Chinese expansion ended that.
In 1959, the Khampa (or Kham Tibetan) people in Lhasa organized a revolt against Chinese rule. “The fighting lasted three days with the Tibetans caught up in a religious fervor, not caring whether they lived or died,” according to Operation China. The Dalai Lama fled to India and into exile after Chinese troops crushed this revolt.
Many Tibetans have died for the Dalai Lama in the years since this occupation began.
Tibetan Buddhism is a way of life. It is the culture, not just a religion, for a population of more than 5.4 million people (the 10th largest people group living in China).
The Chinese may have inhabited the land of these people since 1959, but they have not stripped them of their prayer wheels, beads and flags, their chants and meditation, and their sky burials (in which the dead are dismembered and fed to vultures).
Tibetan Buddhism has incorporated ancient occult practices as well as worship of mountain gods (the native Bon religion). Tantrism (a blending of Buddhism and the occult) is considered the official religion of Tibet and is also practiced in Nepal. The Dalai Lama is central to the worship life of the Tibetan.
“Two things saved them,” our guide says of the Tibetan people. “One is their religion. It is their common bond. Two is the high places, where they live. It is hard to get to them.”
That’s why we were sent there: to visit the high, hard places and to share our faith. We follow the Son of Man, the Risen Savior, not a man (be it Siddhārtha Gautama, the father of Buddhism, or the latest Dalai Lama) who will face the inevitability of death.
“These people around here are all mountaineers,” our friend observes about the nomads who welcome us.
They greet us with tea (yak butter tea during the summer) and questions. “Do you get to see the Dalai Lama?”
They enjoy discussing religion — from their Buddhist way of life to our counter-culture faith in the God-made-man who died for our sins. They enjoy our Gospel teachings. But their hearts are mostly hard.
“There are miracles,” says our translator, who is one such example. He is one of the estimated .05 percent of the Kham Tibetans (about 7,500 of 1.5 million people) who follow Christ. “But really their minds are closed.”
They need to be shown the love of Jesus. They need to see His hands and feet embodied in our lives. We are sent to walk alongside them and share what and Who we know.
It is not easy. It will take time.
The best time to reach Tibetans with the Good News is during their high school and college years, when (like most young people) “they think traditions are bad,” our friend says. They are open to something new and very different from anything they’ve heard during these rebellious years. We can give them cause for their rebellion.
Our guide was that age when he heard about Jesus. He was 14. He liked the Bible stories, but he thought it was “a myth.”
Then he watched the Jesus film. That’s when the Spirit invaded.
“I had a dream I was in a fight,” he shares, “and I had a vision of Jesus on the cross from the Jesus film.”
He realized that Jesus had come and died for him. It was a personal, eternity-altering moment.
“Be a good friend,” says our friend and advisor, “and show how God is working on you.”
We wear the symbol of the cross He willingly went to on chains around our necks. When a Tibetan shows us the photo of the Dalai Lama on his necklace and asks if we have met him, we show the cross of Christ and tell him, “No, but we have met Him.” And we share His love for them.
This story originally appeared in The Climbing Way (Volume 18, Summer 2010).
Posted Sept. 20, 2010