Reaching Tibetans (1/5)

Reaching Tibetans (1/5)


In this five-part series we will discuss the history of missional outreach among the Himalayas while specifically focusing on the Tibetan and Nepali stories in hopes that missiological implications will inform and shape any future outreach efforts. We will explore both Tibetan and Nepali Christian history in four phases: Pre-Christian, Initial Stages, Church Growth, and Current Day. Common barriers to the gospel will be discussed along with significant missionaries that played a part in the missional story and the strategies they used will be explored. Finally the mission that exists among the diaspora will be examined. Undoubtedly, the Nepali and Tibetan missional history is very important because both people groups are still largely unreached today.

Tibet: Barriers and Bridges.

Attempts by missionaries over the years to share the gospel with Tibetans have been met with many religious and contextual challenges. The lack of a concept of a Judea-Christian God, a strong ingrained belief in karma, a circular view of life (reincarnation), a concept of non-soul, and the belief in nirvana are just a few of the challenges that exist.[1] Tibetan Buddhist’s essential beliefs form around karma. They believe that due to karma they will be reborn into either five levels of existence: gods, demigods, humans, hungry ghosts, and animals.[2] Tibetan Buddhists do not believe in a Creator God but instead in the interconnectedness of all things (animal, plant, human) and by seeking enlightenment and emptiness you benefit all by showing them the way. As Aquilar explains,

Buddhists do not uphold creation out of an act of being, but from a notion of emptiness. The spiritual emptiness of a Buddhist monk lies on the act of self-emptying.[3]

Furthermore, the karmic belief is tied together with shamanistic practices that seek to influence evil demonic spirits. Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci explains the role demons play within this karmic system:

Whether man is favored by fortune, or is her victim, does not depend on chance. It is rather the fruit of his karma…Many of these powers are hostile under all circumstances, evil in nature, but most behave in an ambiguous and inconstant manner.[4]

Many Buddhists live in fear of the demonic and must worship them and are consumed by right action in the present. This combination of Buddhism, Bon, and folk religion results in an expression of Tibetan religious belief in ways that is animistic and ritualistic in nature.

Concepts such as self-emptying, karma, and the demonic found in the Tibetan religious beliefs provide challenges for Christian missionaries when contextualizing the gospel. The question arises in regards to how a missionary should share the gospel message in a way that is relevant in a culturally appropriate way without over-contextualizing. Ippolito Desideri, an Italian Jesuit missionary in the 18th century wrote an apologetic work appealing to Tibetan Buddhists titled Against the belief that everybody can be saved by their own religion and the other, against the migration of souls.[5] This work attempted to gain an understanding of Tibetan Buddhism in order seek to understand their religious beliefs while seeking to contextualize the gospel message so that they may have an opportunity to hear. Desideri was the first missionary to do this. Through his writings the church was able to understand for the first time the Tibetan idea of karma and the reflective life of a Buddhist, which advanced missional efforts to reach them.

Nonetheless, the missionary can use the concept of karma as a bridge to the gospel. The Buddhist worldview often is not concerned with the concept of sin and righteousness by Jesus but sees life in a karmic cycle fueled by right action. Nishijima states,

Righteousness in Buddhism is related to how Buddhists view the concept of sin…If we act rightly, or righteously, then we can live happy lives. If we act wrongly, then we will be unhappy. In Buddhism we are very concerned with right action. [6]

A Buddhist is concerned with right action in the here and now more than with the sins they have committed in their past.

Tissa Weerasingha discusses a bridge to the gospel when she proposes,

the gospel can be presented as the Lord Jesus Christ being the one who accumulated infinite merits by virtue of His sinless life and meritorious death. Since He was perfect in His nature, He generated an infinite quantum of merits during His earthly life and ministry through His innumerable good deeds (John 21:25) because the death of Jesus on the cross generated an infinite amount of merit, what effect could it have on humanity?[7]

This example of a contextual bridge by Weerasingha shows the complexity of the task to reaching Tibetan Buddhists. Our own efforts and strategies for contextualizing are limited but we know that God is involved with the process and we can be reassured that His mission will go forth.

Tibet: Pre-Christianity.

Of the estimated 6 million Tibetans worldwide today most are predominately Tibetan Buddhist. It is said that Tibet absorbed Buddhism from India in the 7th century and King Songtsen Gampo formally introduced it. The traditional folk religions of Tibet were incorporated within Buddhism in the 13th century and the first Dalai Lama was instated. The incorporation of these folk religious practices and the position of the Dalai Lama make it unique in ways that differ from other forms of Buddhism around the world. In addition to these factors, there was little missionary engagement until the 15th century because Tibetans have been largely isolated by the Himalaya Mountains.


[1] Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, “Christian Witness to Buddhists,” (accessed Dec. 9, 2017)

[2] Dodin, Thierry and Heinz Rather. eds. Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies (Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2001), 15.

[3] Aguilar, Mario I., “The Jesuits in Tibet at the Time of the VI and VII Dalai Lamas”, Tibet Journal (September 2012), 71.

[4] Giuseppe Tucci, The Religions of Tibet. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980),


[5] Dodin and Rather, 12.

[6] Gudo Wafu Nishijima.“A Buddhist Monk’s View of Theological Encounter III.” Buddhist-Christian Studies, Vol. 11 [1991]: 274.

[7] Weerasingha, Tissa, “Karma and Christ: Opening the eyes to the Buddhist World,” International Journal of Frontier Missions (Vol.10:3 July 1993), 133.

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